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CT reduces cerebral atrophy in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Researchers from Raboud University Nijmegen investigated whether Cognitive Therapy (CT) affected the cerebral atrophy of patients suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

The study appeared in BRAIN: A Journal of Neurology.

The study included twenty-two CFS patients and twenty-two control subjects, all of whom underwent a two-step program of CBT. The initial focus of treatment is a “rehabilitative approach of a graded increase in physical activity,” while the second part emphasizes a “psychological approach that addresses thoughts and beliefs about CFS which may impair recovery.”

Upon completion of the CBT treatment, the CFS patients experienced significant improvement in their physical status as well as their cognitive performance. Furthermore, the CFS patients, who had initially shown significantly lower grey matter volume than the control subjects, showed a significant increase in grey matter volume through the work of CBT.

The results of this study, which included the partially reversed cerebral atrophy after effective CBT, are an “example of macroscopic cortical plasticity in the adult human brain, demonstrating a surprisingly dynamic relation between behavioural state and cerebral anatomy. Furthermore, (their) results reveal a possible neurobiological substrate of psychotherapeutic treatment.”

Study authors: F. P. de Lange, A. Koers, J. S. Kalkman, et al.

What Cognitive Therapy does to your brain…

Cognitive Therapy is well known for being effective for depression (it’s twice as effective as medication in preventing relapse) and it’s also been shown to work for many other disorders — but why? How does it work?

A major clue to how Cognitive Therapy affects the brain came out in this study two years ago — researchers were interested in seeing how Cognitive Behavior Therapy affected the brains of depressed people as compared to medication. They hypothesized that since both CBT and medication were effective for depression, both treatments would affect the same part of the brain. Using brain imaging technology, they scanned participants’ brains before and after the course of treatment.

And they were in for a surprise. Researchers found that antidepressants affected one part of the brain among depressed patients, and CBT treatment affected another part altogether. Antidepressants dampened activity in the limbic system — the emotional center of the brain. Conversely, CBT calmed activity in the cortex — the brain’s seat of reason.

In other words, antidepressants reduced emotions, whereas CBT helped patients process their emotions in a healthier manner.

Which explains why those on antidepressants have a much higher likelihood of relapse if they go off of their meds — negative emotions can flood back in. But with CBT, patients gain the skills to respond to their emotions more effectively — for long-term benefits.