Researchers from the University of Szeded in Hungary found even more benefits to talk therapy: not only can it decrease symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it can also alter the symptomatic biology of the disorder.

Lead by Dr. Szabolcs Kéri, the researchers recruited 39 people diagnosed with PTSD and 31 individuals who have been exposed to trauma but did not develop PTSD. All underwent MRIs in order to measure the volume of certain regions in the brain, such as the hippocampus. Blood samples were also collected to track changes in the gene most implicated for developing PTSD and regulating stress hormones, FKBP5. Of the individuals recruited, those diagnosed with PTSD were subject to 12 weeks of talk therapy, while those without PTSD received no therapy whatsoever.

What a Brain with PTSD Looks Like After Talk Therapy

Clinical improvement was found in the PTSD patients after the 12 weeks. Even more startling, however, were the biological changes they experienced in comparison to the individuals with no PTSD and no therapy treatment. Reports published in Biological Psychiatry state that the talk therapy patients showed an increase in FKBP5 expression and a larger hippocampus volume.

So what do these findings indicate for PTSD treatment and talk therapy? For one, Keri notes, the results show that the structural changes in the brain caused by trauma can, in fact, be reversed. Secondly, it seems that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and talk therapy at-large, can perpetuate this reversal.

More on Talk Therapy and PTSD

This may mean a different way of looking at talk therapy. "We tend to divide treatments for mental illness into 'psychological' approaches and 'biological' ones; the former typically involve 'talk therapy' and the latter medication," Clinical Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College wrote in the New York Times. "But this either-or way of thinking obscures the fact that talk therapy affects the brain and is no less biological than pills."

Talk therapy is psychotherapy designed to treat those with cognitive disorders. A form of talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on exploring the patterns of thinking that lead to inappropriate responses in an individual. It assumes that anxiety is a result of a maladaptive response to inaccurate or negative thinking that causes dysfunctional behavior. Another type of talk therapy, exposure therapy, treats anxiety disorders by exposing patients to their fears in a systematic and secure way. Both CBT and exposure therapy are typically recommended for those disgnosed with PTSD.

Medications are also available for PTSD. These include:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft): A serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that increases the activity of neurons that use serotonin to transmit signals between them.
  • Paroxetine (Paxil): Another SSRI, paroxetine reduces anxiety experienced from PTSD.
  • Prazosin: Prazosin currently does not have an FDA indication for PTSD treatment. However, it is commonly used to treat nightmares associates with PTSD. Originally administered to treat enlarged prostates, Prazosin works by blocking one of the types of receptors for adrenaline and related hormones.
Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 10, 2015