Cognitive behavioral therapy changes brain activity

Cognitive behavioral therapy changes brain activity

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Cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorders affects brain activity

If a panic disorder is treated with cognitive behavior therapy, its success is reflected in a change in brain activity. A nationwide research team found this out in a new study by combining behavioral experiments with imaging techniques.

As the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) explains on the portal "", cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most widespread and best studied forms of psychotherapy. Now researchers from Germany have gained further insights into this therapy. They found that treating panic disorder with cognitive behavioral therapy results in a change in brain activity.

Therapy of choice for panic disorder

According to a message from the Philipps University of Marburg, panic disorder is one of the most serious anxiety disorders, characterized by sudden and repeated panic attacks.

"The development of a panic disorder is regularly accompanied by a distorted processing of linguistic and non-linguistic meanings about the world and itself," explains co-author Dr. Tilo Kircher, who heads the Marburg University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

As stated in the release, the treatment of choice for panic disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy that normalizes pathological speech processing.

Researchers used the method of magnetic resonance imaging

"What happens at the level of brain activity has not yet been adequately investigated using experimental approaches," says co-author Professor Dr. Benjamin Straube.

The scientists closed this gap by carrying out experiments with 118 patients whose panic disorder had not yet been treated with cognitive behavior therapy; 42 of them received therapy and were repeatedly tested afterwards. 150 healthy test subjects served as a comparison.

The research team used the technique of magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain activities of the study participants while simultaneously subjecting them to a language task.

According to the information, this task is about the preparation of the symptoms of a panic attack by typical triggers of panic, such as the word "elevator", which often connect those affected with the feeling of hopeless tightness and fear.

Changes in the activity of certain areas of the brain

The result of the study: If patients have not yet completed cognitive behavioral therapy, they perceive a stronger relationship between panic-triggering and symptom-describing words than healthy test subjects. This effect is reflected in the changed activity of certain areas of the brain.

After cognitive behavioral therapy, those affected are not only better off, but their language processing has also normalized. In addition, the success of treatment is reflected in brain activity: it is subdued in an area of ​​the brain that processes panic-related word pairs.

"Apparently, cognitive behavior therapy prevents associations that are symptomatic of patients with panic disorder", concludes the Marburg psychologist Dr. Yunbo Yang, who is the first author of the publication, The study was published in the journal "American Journal of Psychiatry".

In addition to scientists from the Philipps University of Marburg, working groups from six other universities were involved in the study, namely from Berlin, Bremen, Dresden, Greifswald, Münster and Würzburg. The underlying research work was financially supported by the Federal Ministry of Research. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Philipps University of Marburg: Cognitive behavioral therapy affects brain activity, (accessed: December 18, 2019), Philipps University of Marburg
  • American Journal of Psychiatry: Effect of CBT on Biased Semantic Network in Panic Disorder: A Multicenter fMRI Study Using Semantic Priming, (accessed: December 18, 2019), American Journal of Psychiatry
  • Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG): Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, (accessed: December 18, 2019),

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