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J Affect Disord. 2010 Oct;126(1-2):236-44. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2010.03.022. Epub 2010 Apr 24.

The effects of Brief Behavioral Activation Therapy for Depression on cognitive control in affective contexts: An fMRI investigation.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7160, USA.



Unipolar major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by impaired cognitive control in affective contexts, but the potential for psychotherapy to affect the neural correlates of these functions has not been evaluated.


Twelve adults with and 15 adults without MDD participated in two identical functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that utilized a task requiring cognitive control in both sad and neutral contexts. Between scans, MDD outpatients received Behavioral Activation Therapy for Depression, a psychotherapy modality designed to increase engagement with positive stimuli and reduce avoidance behaviors.


Seventy-five percent of adults with MDD were treatment responders, achieving post-treatment Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression score of six or below. Consistent with predictions, psychotherapy resulted in decreased activation in response to cognitive control stimuli presented within a sad context in prefrontal structures, including the paracingulate gyrus, the right orbital frontal cortex, and the right frontal pole. Furthermore, the magnitude of pretreatment activation in the paracingulate gyrus cluster responsive to psychotherapy predicted the magnitude of depressive symptom change after psychotherapy.


Replication with larger samples is needed, as are follow-up studies that involve placebo control groups, wait-list control groups, and alternative forms of antidepressant intervention.


Behavioral Activation Therapy for Depression improves depressive symptoms and concomitantly influences brain systems mediating cognitive control in affective contexts.

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