CBT May Ease Social Anxiety by Remodeling, Reducing Brain Activity

A new Swedish study finds that after just nine weeks of Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy, the brains of patients suffering from social anxiety disorder change in volume and activity — and anxiety is reduced.

Researchers noted that the brain is remarkably adaptable. For instance, previous studies have shown that juggling and video games affect brain volume. But questions remain about how brain volume and neuronal activity in specific areas may change.

In the current investigation, a group of researchers from Linköping University and other Swedish universities studied how Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) affects brain volume and activity.

The researchers focused on patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD), one of the most common mental health problems.

For the study, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), was performed on all study participants before and after the ICBT intervention.

The researchers found that in patients with SAD, brain volume and activity in the amygdala decrease as a result of ICBT. Study results appear in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

“The greater the improvement we saw in the patients, the smaller the size of their amygdalae. The study also suggests that the reduction in volume drives the reduction in brain activity,” said doctoral student Kristoffer NT Månsson, who led the study. Månsson teamed with Linköping colleague Dr. Gerhard Andersson and researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, Uppsala University, Umeå University and Stockholm University.

The study comprised 26 individuals treated over the Internet for nine weeks, making it a relatively small study. However, it is unique in that it investigates multiple factors at the same time: post-treatment changes in both brain volume and brain activity.

“Although we didn’t look at that many patients, this work provides some important knowledge — especially for all the sufferers. Several studies have reported that certain areas of the brain differ between patients with and without anxiety disorders,” Månsson said.

“We’ve shown that the patients can improve in nine weeks — and that this leads to structural differences in their brains.”

Månsson sees the study as a first step in a larger project. Ultimately the aim is to better understand the psychological and biological effects of treatment in order to develop more effective therapies.

The research team is now moving forward with studies on more patients. One study aims to identify the point during the treatment where the change in the brain occurs.

Experts believe the study findings will help in the development of more effective therapies for one of the most common problems in mental health.

Source: Linköping University
Amygdala in the brain photo by shutterstock.