NARSAD Grantees Use Functional MRI (fMRI) to Predict Success of Talk Therapy

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Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Grantee Stefan G. Hoffman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director, Social Anxiety Program, Boston University and expert on depression and anxiety disorders
Stefan G. Hoffman, Ph.D.

A team including Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Grantees Stefan G. Hoffman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director, Social Anxiety Program, Boston University and Frida E. Polli, Ph.D., a former Postdoctoral Fellow, Brain & Cognitive Sciences Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used brain imaging to determine if study participants with social anxiety disorders were likely to respond to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a talk therapy approach frequently used to treat a wide range of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders and depression. When successful, CBT helps patients identify unhealthy emotions and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones.

The study focused on 39 medication-free participants with a diagnosis of generalized social anxiety disorders. First, researchers used fMRI to measure participant response to neutral faces versus angry faces and emotional scenes versus neutral scenes.  Next, participants were treated with CBT. Each participant’s level of progress through CBT was evaluated. Researchers found that responses to the images prior to treatment provided a substantially greater means of predicting outcomes of CBT than traditional clinical measures alone.

According to the study authors, “The results suggest that brain imaging can provide biomarkers that substantially improve predictions for the success of cognitive behavioral interventions and more generally suggest that such biomarkers may offer evidence-based, personalized medicine approaches for optimally selecting among treatment options for a patient.”

Read more in the January 2013 issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry

Article comments

This finding seems eminently reasonable as among my most severely depressed patients in which left hemispheric weakness creates ascendance of the right frontal-temporal areas wherein affect in others is assessed, albeit, with a bias toward hostility. These patients even view their image in the mirror as evocative disapproval in others.

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