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Does the brain change after therapy? UT researcher finds differences in scans after PTSD treatment

Austin American-Statesman - 3/3/2021

Have you ever wondered if psychotherapy does anything physically to the brain to help people who have experienced trauma?

Greg Fonzo, Dell Medical School assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, set to answer that and other questions in research he began at Stanford University, where he was before coming to the University of Texas.

The research has been published in the journal "Biological Psychiatry." Fonzo and his team used functional MRI machines to compare people with post-traumatic stress disorder who received psychotherapy treatment and those who did not (though the control group was given therapy 10 weeks after the scans were taken).

The scans looked at the connectivity between different parts of the brain — the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex with the left parietal cortex, the bilateral amygdala and the bilateral insula.

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People who have more active PTSD, Fonzo says, are in a "chronic state of fight or flight." There is a lot of communication happening between those parts of the brain, he says.

The brain scans revealed, Fonzo says, that people who had been going through therapy for PTSD showed less communication between the deep inner brain, which is responsible for emotional responses, and prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for higher order such as regulating and planning.

Why might that be? Fonzo says he believes that once people had psychotherapy, it allowed them to not need to use as much effort to control their emotions.

"They could manage their emotions and stay calm using their resources," he says. "After treatment, they were more calm, less reactive, less bothered by emotions."

The research points to a direct connection between therapy and the physical activities of the brain.

"Psychotherapy is having a measurable biological effect on the brain," he says. "People think that medications are more biological and psychotherapy is 'get in touch with feelings,' but that's not the only piece."

Fonzo hopes the research will show people "we're getting closer and closer to understanding mental illness and PTSD specifically."

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This research also can help in the development of therapies. Researchers can study new therapies and use functional MRIs to see how the brain is different after a new therapy. They also will be able to compare one kind of therapy versus another kind of therapy and how the brains in those patients are different.

Fonzo is now using imaging to study how PTSD impacts the brain's response to positive stimuli and hoping to develop novel treatments. He's also looking at the brain's threat system and how it might interfere with the function of the reward system.

He has three studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that are looking for participants. You can find the studies at

Nicole Villalpando writes about health for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Does the brain change after therapy? UT researcher finds differences in scans after PTSD treatment


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