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The Future of Computer-assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Wall Street Jour­nal had a very inter­est­ing arti­cle yes­ter­day, titled To Be Young and Anxiety-Free, focused on the value of cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­apy to help chil­dren with high lev­els of anx­i­ety learn how too cope bet­ter and pre­vent the snow­ball sce­nario, when that anx­i­ety grows and spi­rals out of con­trol result­ing in depres­sion and similar

- “…new research show­ing that treat­ing kids for anx­i­ety when they are young may help pre­vent the devel­op­ment of more seri­ous men­tal ill­nesses, includ­ing depres­sion and more debil­i­tat­ing anx­i­ety disorders.”

- “Of course, most kids have fears with­out hav­ing a full-blown anx­i­ety dis­or­der. And some anx­i­ety is healthy: It makes sense, for exam­ple, to be a lit­tle ner­vous before a big test. Doc­tors and psy­chol­o­gists do cau­tion that the increased focus on child­hood anx­i­ety could lead to an over­diag­no­sis of the prob­lem. What makes anx­i­ety a true ill­ness is when it inter­feres with nor­mal func­tion­ing or causes seri­ous emo­tional and phys­i­cal distress.”

- “But the use of anti­de­pres­sants in chil­dren has come under fire because of recent evi­dence show­ing an increase in sui­ci­dal thoughts in kids tak­ing the drugs. Partly as a result, many doc­tors and psy­chol­o­gists employ as a first line of treat­ment cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­apy, or CBT, which is often just as effec­tive as medication.”

Full arti­cle: To Be Young and Anxiety-Free.

What is Cog­ni­tive Ther­apy (the most com­mon  type of cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­apy) and what are its cog­ni­tive and struc­tural brain ben­e­fits? Judith Beck guides us here:

- “Cog­ni­tive ther­apy, as devel­oped by my father Aaron Beck, is a com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem of psy­chother­apy, based on the idea that the way peo­ple per­ceive their expe­ri­ence influ­ences their emo­tional, behav­ioral, and phys­i­o­log­i­cal responses. Part of what we do is to help peo­ple solve the prob­lems they are fac­ing today. We also teach them cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral skills to mod­ify their dys­func­tional think­ing and actions.”

- “For years, we could only mea­sure the impact of cog­ni­tive ther­apy based on psy­cho­log­i­cal assess­ments. Today, thanks to fMRI and other neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, we are start­ing to under­stand the impact our actions can have on spe­cific parts of the brain.”

- “For exam­ple, take spi­der pho­bia. In a 2003 paper sci­en­tists observed how, prior to the ther­apy, the fear induced by view­ing film clips depict­ing spi­ders was cor­re­lated with sig­nif­i­cant acti­va­tion of spe­cific brain areas, like the amyg­dala. After the inter­ven­tion was com­plete (one three-hour group ses­sion per week, for four weeks), view­ing the same spi­der films did not pro­voke acti­va­tion of those areas. Those indi­vid­u­als were able to “train their brains” and man­aged to reduce the brain response that typ­i­cally trig­gers auto­matic stress responses. And we are talk­ing about adults.”

Full inter­view with Judith Beck: Here

Cere­brum, a pub­li­ca­tion by the Dana Foun­da­tion, just released an excel­lent arti­cle with back­ground on cog­ni­tive ther­apy: how the tech­nique was devel­oped and refined, its short and long-term ben­e­fits, and future trends. See A Road Paved by Reason

- “Cog­ni­tive ther­apy is one of the few forms of psy­chother­apy that has been rig­or­ously tested in clin­i­cal tri­als. It was first devel­oped to treat depres­sion, but its ben­e­fits extend to obsessive-compulsive dis­or­der, post-traumatic stress dis­or­der and per­haps even such “phys­i­cal ail­ments as hyper­ten­sion, chronic fatigue syn­drome and chronic back pain.”

- “Psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems result from the erro­neous mean­ings that peo­ple attach to events, not from the events themselves.”

- “In cog­ni­tive ther­apy, patients learn through a vari­ety of strate­gies to test their faulty beliefs. They then learn to appraise them­selves and their futures in a way that is real­is­tic, unbi­ased and constructive.”

- “He (founder Aaron Beck) found that peo­ple who are depressed sys­tem­at­i­cally block out the pos­i­tive aspects of their life, see­ing only the neg­a­tive. They inter­pret ambigu­ous events in a neg­a­tive way, which he describes as cog­ni­tive dis­tor­tion. If some­thing gen­uinely neg­a­tive does occur, they tend to exag­ger­ate its mag­ni­tude, sig­nif­i­cance and con­se­quences. A minor error becomes a major catastrophe.”

- “Although cog­ni­tive ther­apy usu­ally focuses on prob­lem solv­ing in the present, by doing that task the patients also develop life­long skills…The authors spec­u­lated that the last­ing effects of cog­ni­tive ther­apy reflect the patients new-found abil­ity to “do the ther­apy for them­selves. They remarked that the strate­gies learned “even­tu­ally become sec­ond nature, coin­cid­ing with a par­al­lel change from prob­lem­atic under­ly­ing beliefs to more adap­tive ones.

- “Var­i­ous managed-care com­pa­nies and men­tal health cen­ters now expect their ther­a­pists to be trained in cog­ni­tive ther­apy. The British gov­ern­ment has recently set up a large pro­gram for train­ing over 6,000 men­tal health work­ers to do cog­ni­tive ther­apy. There are now dozens, if not hun­dreds, of researchers focus­ing on the the­o­ret­i­cal under­pin­nings of cog­ni­tive ther­apy, or on its applications.

Full arti­cle: A Road Paved by Reason

In short, here we have a num­ber of major soci­etal prob­lems (anx­i­ety, depres­sion…) that affect peo­ple of all ages, and an inter­ven­tion that teaches peo­ple cog­ni­tive skills to be able to man­age those related chal­lenges bet­ter.  Talk about “teach­ing how to fish” vs. sim­ply hand­ing out fish (which we could argue is what anti­de­pres­sant med­ica­tions do).

Why don’t more peo­ple ben­e­fit today from that approach? A major prob­lem, in my view, is the lack of a scal­able dis­tri­b­u­tion model. Mean­ing, using the tra­di­tional face-to-face approach, one needs to cre­ate, train, cer­tify, ensure qual­ity of, a very large  net­work of prac­ti­tion­ers. Which is what, as  men­tioned above, the British gov­ern­ment is doing: train­ing 6,000 men­tal health workers.

This is cer­tainly a wor­thy ini­tia­tive. Now, is it the most scal­able one to deliver results while being cost and resource effi­cient? Per­haps not.

We can view cog­ni­tive ther­apy as a method for well-structured cog­ni­tive exer­cise, where a key fac­tor of suc­cess is prac­tice. Same as train­ing your abdom­i­nal mus­cles: if you just join the local club, which has a set of superb machines for abdom­i­nal train­ing, but don’t use abdominal trainingthose machines in a dis­ci­plined man­ner, your abdom­i­nal mus­cles are unlikely to become very impressive.

We can then view the ther­a­pist as the per­sonal trainer who moti­vates you to stay on track, to pro­pose the right exer­cise rou­tine based on your per­sonal goals. If the trainer is with you the whole time, encour­ag­ing you to do and mon­i­tor­ing your abdom­i­nal exer­cises, you are most likely to com­plete them. But it is a very expen­sive approach.

Per­haps a hybrid approach makes more sense: the per­sonal trainer helps you define goals, super­vise progress and make mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the train­ing regime, AND you do your own abdom­i­nal exer­cises with the machine that has been designed pre­cisely with that goal in mind. There were no such main­stream machines only 50 years ago, before phys­i­cal fit­ness became a pop­u­lar con­cept and prac­tice. Now there is one in every health club and TV infomercial.

Let’s go back to cog­ni­tive ther­apy. Of course there is a need for more and bet­ter trainer pro­fes­sion­als who can help patients. But of course tech­nol­ogy will help com­ple­ment exist­ing approaches, reach­ing cor­ners we can not even pre­dict now, and help­ing more peo­ple of all ages bet­ter cope with change, life, anx­i­ety, a range of cog­ni­tive and emo­tional chal­lenges. With­out any stigma. Just as nat­u­rally as one trains abdom­i­nal muscles.

There is already research show­ing the value of com­put­erised cog­ni­tive ther­apy. A recent sys­tem­atic review pub­lished in the British Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try con­cluded that

There is some evi­dence to sup­port the effec­tive­ness of CCBT for the treat­ment of depres­sion. How­ever, all stud­ies were asso­ci­ated with con­sid­er­able drop-out rates and lit­tle evi­dence was pre­sented regard­ing par­tic­i­pants pref­er­ences and the accept­abil­ity of the ther­apy. More research is needed to deter­mine the place of CCBT in the poten­tial range of treat­ment options offered to indi­vid­u­als with depression.”

Yes, more research is always needed. How­ever, we also need to refine the ques­tions. Not so much “Will com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive ther­apy leave thou­sands of ther­a­pists out of work?” but “How can com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive ther­apy be used to increase the reach and effec­tive­ness of ther­a­pists” and “Can com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive ther­apy help reach pop­u­la­tions that receive no inter­ven­tion what­so­ever today?”

Think about that next time you see this:

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