How combining Brain Stimulation with Psychotherapy can boost psychological change

Jan 5, 2023 - neurocare group

Combining psychotherapy with non-invasive neuromodulation can enhance the treatment of depression and other neuropsychiatric diseases, with positive results even in the long term. This finding has been confirmed in a recent article published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews1 .

The article, titled Boosting psychological change: Combining non-invasive brain stimulation with psychotherapy presents an overview of evidence to date on the effectiveness of integrated treatments with psychotherapy and brain stimulation, for more personalized and effective treatment.

neurocare spoke with Professor Simone Rossi, co-author of the study and Professor of Physiology at the University of Siena Professor Rossi is also Scientific Director at neurocare Italy and was able to elaborate on research findings demonstrating that brain stimulation can be used as a treatment pathway for depression.


Depression is rising worldwide, and not everyone responds to medication

Depression and other mental health disorders are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality and a major challenge for health care systems throughout the world. The COVID-19 pandemic, social restrictions and growing feelings of insecurity have contributed to a 27 percent increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety worldwide2.

Despite advances in the knowledge and management of neuropsychiatric disorders, treatment pathways are not effective for everyone3. According to Professor Rossi “not all people with depression or other psychiatric disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, respond positively to first-line treatments”.


It has been estimated that less than 50 percent of people with major depression respond to pharmacological treatments or psychotherapy.

Professor Simone Rossi, Professor of Physiology, the University of Sienna  

Non-invasive neuromodulation, a new therapeutic frontier for neuropsychiatric disorders 

In recent decades, non-invasive neuromodulation techniques, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)and Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES), have emerged as promising nonpharmacological treatment options for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictions and other disorders. In particular, it has been demonstrated that neuromodulation techniques may also be effective in patients who have not responded to medication and are considered ‘treatment resistant’.

“Neuromodulation treatments can be administered relatively quickly,” Professor Rossi continues, “they can bring rapid and lasting benefits because they act directly on the impaired neural circuits underlying some disorders, such as depression.”

Brain stimulation can be easily integrated with psychotherapy to enhance its benefits. The recent study compared the results of research that included the administration of magnetic or electrical stimulation along with psychotherapy as a treatment for drug-resistant depression, to studies where these therapies were carried out independently.

“The analysis showed that the therapies reinforce each other” says Professor Rossi. “Combining brain stimulation and psychotherapy could become the first-line treatment option for treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders in the future,” he concludes.


How Psychotherapy positively affects and “changes” the brain

Psychotherapy is a set of techniques centred around the therapist-patient interaction which seek to alleviate a patient’s psychological distress through learning, emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes.

Scientific literature has now shown that psychotherapy influences the functioning of neuronal activity in various mental health conditions. In the Boosting Psychological Change study, imaging techniques were used to demonstrate that psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), is able to induce long-lasting changes in brain activity, promoting neural plasticity and inducing neurogenesis.

Studies on major depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder have shown that psychotherapy-mediated changes occur in regions of the brain devoted to emotional regulation, decision making, and memory, key regions for coping with symptoms and achieving psychological change.

CBT acts on the skills of problem-solving, self-representation and self-regulation of emotions. The areas of the brain in which significant changes have been demonstrated during and after psychotherapy are precisely those on which CBT intervenes.


Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is effective, safe and painless

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS is a non-invasive, non-pharmacological neuromodulation technique. It works by placing a magnetic coil on the client’s head to electrically stimulate specific areas of the brain. The therapy is also sometimes called rTMS, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, because the protocols involve multiple sessions repeated over time.

TMS delivers accurate stimulation limited to a target region, localised by a neuronavigation system that provides immediate feedback on coil position and orientation. “By stimulating selected brain areas, one is able to directly intervene on dysfunctional neural circuits, alleviating the symptomatology of certain neuropsychiatric disorders,” explains Professor Rossi.

“The process is completely treatment and does not require anaesthesia or hospitalisation,” continues Rossi. “To date, no side effects have been reported, apart from a mild focal headache that resolves after a few minutes. Unlike Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), TMS does not cause seizures there is no risk of inducing memory loss.”


TMS and Psychotherapy, the optimal treatment for Depression

Major Depression is a mood disorder characterised by a persistent feeling of sadness, loss of interest, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Those suffering from depression show alterations in the processing of negative emotions and reduced dopamine release in response to rewards. TMS acts directly on brain areas impaired by depressive disorders, restoring their regular functioning.

TMS can be useful in the management of depressive symptoms precisely because of its direct action on neural activity.


Combining magnetic stimulation and psychotherapy aims to enhance the benefits of both therapies to optimize the course of treatment.

Professor Simone Rossi, Professor of Physiology, the University of Sienna  


“The studies reviewed in the publication suggest that integrated protocols with brain stimulation and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy are very viable and effective treatment options even in the long term,” says Professor Rossi.

He refers to the 2018 Donse study which investigated accumulative data of 2019 patients with medication-resistant depression: “About 66 percent achieved a positive response to integrated treatment of TMS and cognitive behavioural psychotherapy,” says Rossi.

“The study reported that 56 percent of patients went into complete remission of symptoms, and 60 percent of patients maintained beneficial effects 6 months after treatment”.4

The effectiveness of TMS has been highlighted previously. “In Isserles’ 2011 study, about 46 percent of patients who underwent TMS treatment combined with cognitive behavioural psychotherapy achieved excellent results and 30 percent achieved complete remission of symptoms,” Rossi concludes.5


The best therapy for depression is integrated and individualised

Current treatment standards approach depression and neuropsychiatric disorders by proposing pathways based mostly on pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy. However, research is increasingly showing how multidisciplinary and integrated interventions with neuromodulation can provide greater and longer lasting benefits, especially for those who do not respond positively to medication.

Studies investigating the effectiveness of a therapeutic approach based on the combination of psychotherapy and brain stimulation techniques are growing, with the aim of formulating optimal clinical protocols to provide targeted interventions. An individualised treatment program, calibrated to the patient’s unique profile, can result in faster recovery that is also effective in the long term.

Brain stimulation and CBT reinforce each other’s beneficial effects. So, a course tailored to the individual’s needs and integrated with psychotherapy and neuromodulation treatments could become the first-line treatment option for depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders in the future.

>> Find out more about neurocare’s combined approach to TMS




1 Tatti, E., Phillips, A. L., Paciorek, R., Romanella, S. M., Dettore, D., Di Lorenzo, G., … & Santarnecchi, E. (2022). Boosting psychological change: combining non-invasive brain stimulation with psychotherapy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 104867.

2 Santomauro, D. F., Herrera, A. M. M., Shadid, J., Zheng, P., Ashbaugh, C., Pigott, D. M., … & Ferrari, A. J. (2021). Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet, 398(10312), 1700-1712.

3 van Bronswijk, S., Moopen, N., Beijers, L., Ruhe, H. G., & Peeters, F. (2019). Effectiveness of psychotherapy for treatment-resistant depression: a meta-analysis and meta-regression. Psychological medicine, 49(3), 366-379.

4 Donse, L., Padberg, F., Sack, A. T., Rush, A. J., & Arns, M. (2018). Simultaneous rTMS and psychotherapy in major depressive disorder: clinical outcomes and predictors from a large naturalistic study. Brain stimulation, 11(2), 337-345.

5 Isserles, M., Rosenberg, O., Dannon, P., Levkovitz, Y., Kotler, M., Deutsch, F., … & Zangen, A. (2011). Cognitive–emotional reactivation during deep transcranial magnetic stimulation over the prefrontal cortex of depressive patients affects antidepressant outcome. Journal of affective disorders, 128(3), 235-242.



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