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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012 Jan;36(1):626-44. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.09.004. Epub 2011 Sep 24.

Differences between effects of psychological versus pharmacological treatments on functional and morphological brain alterations in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder: a systematic review.

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Department of Psychiatry, Anxiety Disorders, Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam, Meibergdreef 5, 1105 AZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


The most prevalent mental disorders, anxiety and mood disorders, are associated with both functional and morphological brain changes that commonly involve the 'fear network' including the (medial) prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. Patients suffering from anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder often show excessive amygdala and reduced prefrontal cortex functioning. It is, however, still unclear whether these brain abnormalities disappear or diminish following effective treatment. This review aims to compare the effects of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy on functional and morphological brain measures in these disorders. Sixty-three studies were included, 30 investigating psychotherapy effects and 33 investigating pharmacotherapy effects. Despite methodological differences, results suggest a functional normalization of the 'fear network'. Pharmacotherapy particularly decreases over-activity of limbic structures (bottom-up effect) while psychotherapy tends to increase activity and recruitment of frontal areas (top-down effect), especially the anterior cingulate cortex. Additionally, pharmacotherapy, but not psychotherapy, has been associated with morphological changes, depending on the disorder. These findings suggest that both types of treatments normalize (functional) brain abnormalities each in specific ways.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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