How do talking therapies work? Leading scientists call for collaboration

“How does one human talking to another, as occurs in psychological therapy, bring about changes in brain activity and cure or ease mental disorders? We don’t really know. We need to.”

So begins a great article published in Nature today, calling for more collaboration between clinical psychology and neuroscience.

It calls for a three-pronged approach:
1. Uncover the mechanisms for existing psychological treatments
2. Optimise psychological treatments and generate new ones
3. Forge links between clinical and lab researchers

The article also echoes a trend in demanding parity of funding and prestige for mental health research. The article points out that “mental-health disorders account for more than 15% of the disease burden in developed countries, more than all forms of cancer.” Despite this only an estimated 7% of research funds is spent on mental health in North America and an estimated 2% in the EU.

Written by three outstanding scientists in their fields, this is an exciting prod to researchers and clinicians to collaborate more effectively. The article tries to unpick why collaboration is not greater. They write: “Neuroscientists and clinical scientists meet infrequently, rarely work together, read different journals, and know relatively little of each other’s needs and discoveries. This culture gap in the field of mental health has widened as brain science has exploded. Researchers in different disciplines no longer work in the same building, let alone the same department, eroding communication. Separate career paths in neuroscience, clinical psychology and psychiatry put the fields in competition for scarce funding.”

The authors are absolutely right, although there are some positive signs of collaborative research and innovative thinking. Studies which look at neurological effects of different types of therapies are available (e.g. CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy). Studies are few enough to be remarkable though, and participant numbers are often small. Much more could be done.

The Nature article was written following an international conference organised by the charity MQ: Transforming Mental Health, a new charity set up with support of the Wellcome Trust and aiming to fund research that will improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness.

Sarah Shenow, Science Information Manager at MQ, said: This paper is a really important call to action. The authors give three critical steps for how the power of science can be applied to improving psychological therapies. These therapies are effective for many people with mental health problems, many people’s treatment of choice, and hold great opportunity to be more targeted and even more effective.”

Watch this space to see what fruits this will bear, and fingers crossed for some exciting cross-pollination of ideas.

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