Research Highlights

Effects on Brain Function of Psychotherapy for Depression

Effects on Brain Function of Psychotherapy for Depression

Background: Unipolar major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by anomalous neurobiological responses to pleasant stimuli, a pattern that may be linked to symptoms of anhedonia. However, the potential for psychotherapy to normalize neurobiological responses to pleasant stimuli has not been evaluated. Methods: Twelve adults with and 15 adults without MDD participated in two identical functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that utilized a Wheel of Fortune task. Between scans, MDD outpatients received Behavioral Activation Therapy for Depression, a psychotherapy modality designed to increase engagement with rewarding stimuli and reduce avoidance behaviors.

Results: 75% of adults with MDD were treatment responders, achieving post-treatment HAM-D score of six or below. Relative to changes in brain function in the matched nondepressed group, psychotherapy resulted in functional changes in structures that mediate responses to rewards, including the paracingulate gyrus during reward selection, the right caudate nucleus (i.e., the dorsal striatum), during reward anticipation, and the paracingulate and orbital frontal gyri during reward feedback. There was no effect of diagnostic status or psychotherapy on in-scanner task-related behavioral responses.

Conclusions: Behavioral Activation Therapy for Depression, a psychotherapy modality designed to increase engagement with rewarding stimuli and reduce avoidance behaviors, results in improved functioning of unique reward structures during different temporal phases of responses to pleasurable stimuli, including the dorsal striatum during reward anticipation.

Citation: Dichter, G.S., Felder, J.N., Petty, C., Bizzell, J., Ernst, M.E., Lynch, T.R., & Smoski, M.J. (2009); The Effects of Psychotherapy on Neural Responses to Rewards in Major Depression; Biological Psychiatry; 66(9):886-97.