Tracking functional brain changes in patients with depression under psychodynamic psychotherapy using individualized stimuli

Daniel Wiswede*, Svenja Taubner, Anna Buchheim, Thomas F. Münte, Michael Stasch, Manfred Cierpka, Horst Kächele, Gerhard Roth, Peter Erhard, Henrik Kessler

*Corresponding author for this work
4 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: Neurobiological models of depression posit limbic hyperactivity that should normalize after successful treatment. For psychotherapy, though, brain changes in patients with depression show substantial variability. Two critical issues in relevant studies concern the use of unspecific stimulation experiments and relatively short treatment protocols. Therefore changes in brain reactions to individualized stimuli were studied in patients with depression after eight months of psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Methods: 18 unmedicated patients with recurrent major depressive disorder were confronted with individualized and clinically derived content in a functional MRI experiment before (T1) and after eight months (T2) of psychodynamic therapy. A control group of 17 healthy subjects was also tested twice without intervention. The experimental stimuli were sentences describing each participant's dysfunctional interpersonal relationship patterns derived from clinical interviews based on Operationalized Psychodynamic Diagnostics (OPD).

Results: At T1 patients showed enhanced activation compared to controls in several limbic and subcortical regions, including amygdala and basal ganglia, when confronted with OPD sentences. At T2 the differences in brain activity between patients and controls were no longer apparent. Concurrently, patients had improved significantly in depression scores.

Conclusions: Using ecologically valid stimuli, this study supports the model of limbic hyperactivity in depression that normalizes after treatment. Without a control group of untreated patients measured twice, though, changes in patients' brain activity could also be attributed to other factors than psychodynamic therapy.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere109037
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 02.10.2014


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