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Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Feb 2;6:e727. doi: 10.1038/tp.2015.218.

Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder.

Author information

Division of Psychology, Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden.
Department of Adult Psychiatry, PRIMA Barn och Vuxenpsykiatri, Stockholm, Sweden.
Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.
Umeå Center for Functional Brain Imaging, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.
Department of Psychology, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.
Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.
Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Psychiatry Section, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.
CEDAR, Center for Demographic and Aging Research, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.


Patients with anxiety disorders exhibit excessive neural reactivity in the amygdala, which can be normalized by effective treatment like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Mechanisms underlying the brain's adaptation to anxiolytic treatments are likely related both to structural plasticity and functional response alterations, but multimodal neuroimaging studies addressing structure-function interactions are currently missing. Here, we examined treatment-related changes in brain structure (gray matter (GM) volume) and function (blood-oxygen level dependent, BOLD response to self-referential criticism) in 26 participants with social anxiety disorder randomly assigned either to CBT or an attention bias modification control treatment. Also, 26 matched healthy controls were included. Significant time × treatment interactions were found in the amygdala with decreases both in GM volume (family-wise error (FWE) corrected P(FWE) = 0.02) and BOLD responsivity (P(FWE) = 0.01) after successful CBT. Before treatment, amygdala GM volume correlated positively with anticipatory speech anxiety (P(FWE)=0.04), and CBT-induced reduction of amygdala GM volume (pre-post) correlated positively with reduced anticipatory anxiety after treatment (P(FWE) ⩽ 0.05). In addition, we observed greater amygdala neural responsivity to self-referential criticism in socially anxious participants, as compared with controls (P(FWE) = 0.029), before but not after CBT. Further analysis indicated that diminished amygdala GM volume mediated the relationship between decreased neural responsivity and reduced social anxiety after treatment (P=0.007). Thus, our results suggest that improvement-related structural plasticity impacts neural responsiveness within the amygdala, which could be essential for achieving anxiety reduction with CBT.

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