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Psychotherapy may help repair brain connections, says study

The word “psychosis” describes a condition during which one’s connection with reality is lost, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). A person dealing with a psychotic episode may hallucinate, have delusions, behave oddly or be unable to speak clearly. These symptoms make the condition frightening for many people.

Traditionally, antipsychotic drugs help manage – not cure – the symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other illnesses, which often involve psychotic episodes. However, a recent study in the United Kingdom revealed that a certain form of psychotherapy can also help alleviate the symptoms of psychosis, by rewiring the brain.

Changing pathways in the brain

The study, conducted by researchers from the King’s College London, is a follow-up to an earlier study published in 2011. In the original study, 22 patients with schizophrenia received medication along with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy. Six months before and after they received the CBT, the researchers used MRI scans to examine activity in the patients’ brains. After comparison, the group that received both CBT and medication showed improved connections in the brain compared to the medication-only group.

In the latest study, published in the Translational Psychiatry in January 2017, the researchers examined the health records of 15 patients in the original study. They also inquired about the patients’ recovery from psychosis after receiving medication and CBT.

The researchers discovered that the patients had spent the majority of the months since the original study free from the symptoms of psychosis. The patients who showed improved brain connections in the amygdala and frontal lobes – the areas of the brain involved in emotions, reasoning and thinking – demonstrated even greater improvement.

“This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors of treatment less important,” said lead author of the study Liam Mason, Ph.D., of the King’s College in a press release.

Understanding CBT

This form of therapy was developed in the 1960s by the psychotherapist Aaron Beck, M.D. He sometimes noticed that his patients carried on a dialogue with themselves during their sessions with him. However, those patients would give him a very limited picture of their thoughts. Further, they were not always aware of their thoughts, which led Beck to coin the term “automatic thoughts.”

Beck discovered that his patients could learn to recognize automatic thoughts, identify them and report them. By doing this, Beck could help his patients understand and deal better with their own thoughts, which he called “cognitive therapy.” As time passed, more techniques were added to Beck’s treatment tool, resulting in the modern CBT.

Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, CBT’s focus is on finding solutions for the patient’s problems. The therapy might not help a patient understand the roots of the issues, but it can help a patient overcome them.

For instance, take a man with a fear of failure. His fear may have emerged from a thought pattern than made him believe his value as a person hinged on continual success. Thus, minor setbacks –such as a missed promotion – would create automatic thoughts of failure and rejection.

Assumptions and emotions often color automatic thoughts, making them unrealistic. Many people in therapy keep track of their thoughts. By viewing one’s thoughts dispassionately, it is easier to see automatic thoughts for what they are.

Seeking treatment

But psychosis isn’t the only problem that CBT can help treat. It also helps in treating addiction and co-occurring conditions. Sovereign Health makes use of CBT and other effective treatment methods at our treatment center in El Paso. Patients struggling with substance issues or dual diagnosis – the combination of a substance use disorder and mental illness – can receive effective and evidence-backed treatment for their illness in a comfortable environment, free from distractions.

We strive to ensure every patient has the best chance for a full recovery. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author 

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at


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