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Brain changes, depression and psychodynamic psychotherapy

Elise Daumain - July 27th 2015

Psychodynamic psychotherapists often rely upon their own subjective observations and upon self-reporting by their patients to confirm the effectiveness of their treatment. Hence it is always interesting when more objective data becomes available.

phrenology

A recent German study looked at the effectiveness of psychodynamic psychotherapy when treating depression, by studying activity within the brain’s limbic and subcortical regions. There is a tendency for depression to be linked with hyperactivity within these regions.

The study recruited 18 non-medicated patients with recurrent major depressive disorder and 17 healthy controls. Members of each group were examined twice. In the case of the depressed individuals this was before the start of their psychotherapy and then eight months later. The control group was also retested eight months after an initial test, but this time without any intervening treatment.

Members of each group were tested with tailored stimuli during an fMRI session. For the depressed individuals this stimuli consisted of sentences based upon ‘a current problematic interpersonal relation typical of their depressive cognitions’; individuals in the control group were tested with sentences based upon ‘a major source of interpersonal distress without being connected to clinical depression’. As predicted, the depressed individuals showed significantly higher activity than the controls in several limbic and subcortical regions, including the amygdala and basal ganglia,. However, when tested 8 months later, the researchers observed a normalization of brain hyperactivity in the depressed group, along with significantly improved depression scores.

The approach used by the study is particularly interesting, both for its linking of ‘objective’ measures of brain activity with ‘subjective’ self-scoring by patients, but also by its use of standardized emotional stimuli which are similar to the material dealt with during typical psychotherapy.

This was a small scale study and other work is needed to confirm these results. The report of the study also notes the possibility of confounding factors such as a regression to the mean. However, the structure of the study does suggest that it did measure real effects, for example, no corresponding changes were found in the control group.

Our clinic’s work with children, adolescents and adults convinces us of the positive effects of psychodynamic psychotherapy on depression and on other difficulties. Studies such as the above help to confirm for us the effectiveness of this approach.

An open access report of this study can be viewed here .


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Welcome to ourNews, where we keep up-to-date with research and other news related to infant mental health. These articles can be of interest to both parents and professionals.
We are keen to know your views and so please do comment on our articles.
Is there a topic that you would like us to write about? Just send us a message via 'Contact us'.

ourAdvice, our other blog, has brief posts with advice for parents.

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