Neural correlates of psychotherapy in anxiety and depression: a meta-analysis

PLoS One. 2013 Sep 11;8(9):e74657. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074657. eCollection 2013.


Several studies have used neuroimaging methods to identify neural change in brain networks associated to emotion regulation after psychotherapy of depression and anxiety. In the present work we adopted a meta-analytic technique specific to neuroimaging data to evaluate the consistence of empirical findings and assess models of therapy that have been proposed in the literature. Meta-analyses were conducted with the Activation Likelihood Estimation technique, which evaluates the overlap between foci of activation across studies. The analysis included 16 studies found in Pubmed (200 foci of activation and 193 patients). Separate meta-analyses were conducted on studies of 1) depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder investigated with rest state metabolism (6 studies, 70 patients); 2) depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder investigated with task-related activation studies (5 studies, 65 patients); 3) the previous studies considered jointly; and 4) phobias investigated with studies on exposure-related activation (5 studies, 57 patients). Studies on anxiety and depression gave partially consistent results for changes in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and in the posterior cingulated gyrus/precuneus. Several areas of change in the temporal lobes were also observed. Studies on the therapy of phobia were consistent with a reduction of activity in medial temporal areas. The cluster of change in the prefrontal cortex may refer to increased recruitment of control processes, as hypothesized by influential models of emotion regulation changes due to psychotherapy. However, not all areas associated with controlled emotion regulation were detected in the meta-analysis, while involvement of midline structures suggested changes in self-related information processing. Changes in phobia were consistent with reduced reactivity to phobic stimuli.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / therapy*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Implosive Therapy
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Neuroimaging
  • Panic Disorder / therapy
  • Phobic Disorders / therapy
  • Psychotherapy*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.