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The Science of Therapy: More Progress Needed

Although it’s well known that therapy helps patients with psychological disorders, researchers aren’t clear what changes occur in the brain to relieve some of the disorders, according to a newly published paper.

One of the researchers, UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske, said that psychological treatment has “the strongest evidence base for addressing many such conditions.” But she and her fellow investigators, Cambridge University professor Emily Holmes and MIT professor Ann Graybiel, added that further research is needed to determine exactly what brain changes occur in therapy.

Mental health disorders — such as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder and eating disorders — affect 1 in 4 people worldwide.

Psychological treatment works well for some conditions. But for others, including bipolar disorder, psychological treatments either are ineffective or in very early stages.

These treatments, they say, have not gained much from the advances neuroscience has made in understanding emotions and behavior. The reason may be that neuroscientists and clinical scientists “meet infrequently, rarely work together, read different journals, and know relatively little of each other’s needs and discoveries.”

To close that gap, the authors say, scientists should uncover the brain mechanism of existing psychological treatments. Then, practitioners can use those insights to create more effective treatments.
In their paper, the researchers advocated a new discipline called “mental health science” to combine the benefits of both disciplines.

“There is enormous promise,” they conclude. “Psychological treatments are a lifeline to so many — and could be to so many more.”

The article was published in the journal Nature.

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