National Institute of Mental Health-sponsored study: Using brain imaging to understand the effects of psychotherapy

Gabriel Dichter, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, discusses his latest NIMH-sponsored brain imaging research exploring the effects of psychotherapy on brain function.

How does psychotherapy for depression change the brain? Answering this question is the focus of research being conducted by Dr. Gabriel Dichter, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Clinical Affective Neuroscience in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

There is no doubt that psychotherapy, also called "talk therapy," is of profound benefit to individuals with clinical depression. However, little is known about the brain mechanisms by which psychotherapy helps people feel better.

Dr. Dichter, in collaboration with researchers at Duke Medical Center and the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, reported in the November issue of Biological Psychiatry the results of his NIMH-sponsored research on the effects of psychotherapy on brain function.

Dr. Dichter used functional MRI to scan depressed patients before and after 11 weekly sessions of a type of psychotherapy designed to increase rewarding behaviors and reduce avoidance behaviors. Seventy-five percent of those treated showed substantial improvement of their depression symptoms. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain responsible for seeking and processing rewards increased functioning after psychotherapy.

This hallmark study suggests that psychotherapy changes the functioning of the brain and that the effects of specific types of psychotherapy may have specific brain targets.

To hear more about this research, please click here on this link to hear a radio interview with Dr. Dichter about this research.