Using PET scans, she randomized a group of depressed patients to either 12 weeks of treatment with the S.S.R.I. antidepressant Lexapro or to cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches patients to correct their negative and distorted thinking.
Over all, about 40 percent of the depressed subjects responded to either treatment. But Dr. Mayberg found striking brain differences between patients who did well with Lexapro compared with cognitive behavior therapy, and vice versa. Patients who had low activity in a brain region called the anterior insula measured before treatment responded quite well to C.B.T. but poorly to Lexapro; conversely, those with high activity in this region had an excellent response to Lexapro, but did poorly with C.B.T.
We know that the insula is centrally involved in the capacity for emotional self-awareness, cognitive control and decision making, all of which are impaired by depression. Perhaps cognitive behavior therapy has a more powerful effect than an antidepressant in patients with an underactive insula because it teaches patients to control their emotionally disturbing thoughts in a way that an antidepressant cannot.
These neurobiological differences may also have important implications for treatment, because for most forms of depression, there is little evidence to support one form of treatment over another...Currently, doctors typically prescribe antidepressants on a trial-and-error basis, selecting or adding one antidepressant after another when a patient fails to respond to the first treatment. Rarely does a clinician switch to an empirically proven psychotherapy like cognitive behavior therapy after a patient fails to respond to medication, although these data suggest this might be just the right strategy. One day soon, we may be able to quickly scan a patient with an M.R.I. or PET, check the brain activity “fingerprint” and select an antidepressant or psychotherapy accordingly.
Is the nonspecific nature of talk therapy — feeling understood and cared for by another human being — responsible for its therapeutic effect? Or will specific types of therapy — like C.B.T. or interpersonal or psychodynamic therapy — show distinctly different clinical and neurobiological effects for various psychiatric disorders?...Right now we don’t have a clue, in part because of the current research funding priorities of the National Institute of Mental Health, which strongly favors brain science over psychosocial treatments. But these are important questions, and we owe it to our patients to try to answer them.