Talk therapy has long been associated with symptom and behavioral changes, but new research shows that it may also lead to neural changes in the brain. The recently published research found that transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP) was linked to alterations in neural circuitry in women diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
“These results advance our currently limited understanding of neural mechanisms associated with psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy,” wrote the researchers. “Activation in [certain parts of the brain] was associated with improvements in behavioral constraint, emotional regulation and aggression in patients with BPD.”
One of the researchers, Mark F. Lenzenweger, distinguished professor of psychology at Binghamton University said: “These findings represent the genuine frontier of clinical science in understanding the effects of psychotherapy.” “Think of it — talk therapy that impacts neural or brain functioning.”
Psychotherapy is currently considered the predominant treatment for people diagnosed with BPD and transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP) is regarded as one evidence-based treatment for improving symptoms of interpersonal aggression and impulsivity. TFP, developed by Kernberg and colleagues utilizes “techniques of clarification, confrontation, and interpretation of affect-laden themes that emerge within the transference relationship.”
The researchers recruited a small sample of 10 women who had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) from a New York City Hospital. These patients were treated for one year with transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP) and given regular neuroimaging scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods.
According to the researchers, “treatment with TFP was associated with relative activation increases in cognitive control areas and relative decreases in areas associated with emotional reactivity.”
Perez, D. L., Vago, D. R., Pan, H., Root, J., Tuescher, O., Fuchs, B. H., … & Lenzenweger, M. F. (2015). Frontolimbic neural circuit changes in emotional processing and inhibitory control associated with clinical improvement following transference‐focused psychotherapy in borderline personality disorder. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences. (Full Text)