A new study reveals that certain cognitive training exercises can help lower depression and improve brain health after a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The findings show that, after cognitive training, TBI patients experience significant reductions in the severity of depressive symptoms, increased ability to manage emotions, improvements in cortical thickness and recovery from abnormal neural network connectivity.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to report brain change associated with reduced depression symptoms after cognitive training,” said lead author Dr. Kihwan Han, a research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Han works in the lab of Dr. Daniel Krawczyk.
“Overall, these findings suggest that cognitive training can reduce depressive symptoms in patients with traumatic brain injury even when the training does not directly target psychiatric symptoms.”
Previous research using the same procedure showed cognitive gains as well as similar changes in cortical thickness and neural network connectivity.
The new study involved 79 participants with chronic TBI who all were at least six months post-injury. The volunteers were randomly assigned into one of two groups: strategy-based training, which used the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the center; and information-based training, which used the Brain Health Workshop program. Researchers used the Beck Depressive Inventory to classify 53 of the participants as depressed.
The individuals’ depressive-symptom severity, psychological functioning scores and data from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans were collected three times: before training, after training and three months post-training. Scans were used to study changes in brain structure and neural network connectivity.
Both treatment programs involved 12 90-minute sessions for an eight-week period. The sessions included quizzes, homework assignments and projects conducted in small group settings involving social interactions.
All of the depressed participants showed significantly reduced depressive symptoms associated with improvements in cognitive and daily life functioning. According to Han, the social engagements, cognitive stimulation from new learning opportunities and hope of improvement afforded by both programs may help explain the reductions in depressive symptoms.
Due to the observed brain change patterns, Han also suggests that the improvements in emotion regulation may be associated with the reduced depressive symptoms. Over time, the improvements in depression were shown to correlate with greater cortical thickness within the prefrontal cortex — a region of the brain responsible for executive functions needed for emotional control — as well as reductions in abnormally high neural connectivity within this region.
“Identifying what changes are happening in the brain when interventions successfully reduce depressive symptoms could allow us to create more effective, pharmaceutical-free approaches to help alleviate depression in people who experience chronic traumatic brain injury symptoms,” said study author Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, and Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor.
The findings are published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.
Source: Center for BrainHealth