The neurobiological substrates of PTSD and EMDR therapy


In the recent years, the number of studies using neuro-imaging to evaluate neural correlates of psychotherapy has steadily increased revealing its clear neurobiological effects on brain function across a wide range of psychiatric disorders. Functional studies by single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET) can now reliably detect changes in cerebral blood flow (CBF) and metabolism patterns, suggesting a specific role for each of the brain areas in various components of emotional processing. Investigations by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have also revealed psychiatry disease-related structural changes. Some regions have been reported to be associated with emotional response to trauma, and with symptom formation in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Several studies have provided evidence for the efficacy of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) in the treatment of PTSD. However a very limited number of studies have investigated the neurobiological substrate of such therapy in clinical practice. SPECT and MRI studies, performed to examine the effects of EMDR on brain patho-physiology have provided some preliminary evidence that changes in brain CBF and structure patterns may follow effective treatment. In general in PTSD and in anxiety disorders functional deactivations parallel symptoms relief and decreased hyperreactivity to emotional and memory disturbances. Functional neuro-imaging is a promising tool for the investigation of the physiological impact of psychotherapy in anxiety related disorders and may thus pave the road for a better detection of its effects in psychiatric treatment. The scientific literature reporting PTSD/EMRD related neuro-imaging studies will be extensively reviewed.






Marco Pagani
Davide Salmaso
Francesca Flumeri
Goran Hogberg

Original Work Citation

Pagani, M., Salmaso, D., Flumeri, F., & Hogberg, G. (2008, June). The neurobiological substrates of PTSD and EMDR therapy. Presentation at the 9th EMDR Europe Association Conference, London, England



“The neurobiological substrates of PTSD and EMDR therapy,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed August 14, 2020,

Output Formats