Science & Society: The DBT Brain

Nov 23, 2022

by JoJo Little, LCSW

Science & Society: The Neuroplastic Brain

In the previous blog post on The Neuroplastic Brain, we began to explore how our environment can influence our brain’s development through neuroplasticity. Have you ever considered how this plays out in your life? Well, if you are currently or previously engaged in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), or know someone who has, you might be interested to learn that there has been some fascinating research on the impact that DBT can have on our brain and the billions of connections within.

Although psychology emerged centuries ago, we are continually learning more about what happens in the brain when we engage in psychotherapy (1). We now know through this research that psychotherapy CAN transform our brain’s neurobiology.

The developer of DBT, Marsha Linehan, states in her Biosocial Theory that invalidating environments can lead to the development of pervasive emotional dysregulation for those of us who are more biologically and emotionally vulnerable. Environments that are limited in their ability to meet our needs can include people in our daily lives such as our caregivers as well as larger systems such as schools, office spaces, communities, and society. The transaction between the invalidating environment and our biological, emotional vulnerability is a recipe for diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) to develop, where the central challenge is to regulate emotions in healthy ways.

DBT has become widely known as the gold-standard treatment for individuals with BPD. Thus far, several studies have looked at individuals with a BPD diagnosis both before and then after completing DBT. The research suggests that DBT has the ability to change our brains. This is where neuroplasticity comes in! Our brains are physically able to change as a result of therapeutic learning via the remapping of connections between neurons—the building blocks of our brains. Specifically, these studies found that the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, had much less intense reactions to negative emotions in those who completed DBT(2). This is important, as research has also found that in individuals with BPD and similar conditions, the amygdala is in fact overactive in comparison with individuals who do not have BPD.

 While these physical changes are not necessarily noticeable unless under a microscope or on a brain scan, it can still be validating to know that while our brains get built during our developmental years, they can be rebuilt through psychotherapy. And you will also be able to experience these changes as you develop your toolbox of DBT skills! What we have observed in this research is testament to the fantastic work that clients and clinicians put into therapy, showing us all that hard work pays off to truly build from the brain up, your Life Worth Living.

 

[1] Airenti G. The Place of Development in the History of Psychology and Cognitive Science. Front Psychol. 2019 Apr 24;10:895. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00895. PMID: 31068874; PMCID: PMC6491641.

 

[2] 1 Iskric A, Barkley-Levenson E. Neural Changes in Borderline Personality Disorder After Dialectical Behavior Therapy-A Review. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Dec 17;12:772081. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.772081. PMID: 34975574; PMCID: PMC8718753.