Biomarkers in the psychotherapeutic relationship: the role of physiology, neurobiology, and biological correlates of E.M.P.A.T.H.Y.

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Journal Article
Harv Rev Psychiatry, 2011, 19 (3), pp. 162 - 174
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Emerging biomarker research could powerfully influence the practice of psychotherapy, a standard treatment that is as strongly rooted in brain plasticity as are psychopharmacologic interventions. Psychotherapy is associated with measurable changes in central and peripheral neurophysiology. These markers could be harnessed to aid informed, personalized recommendations for specific psychosocial treatments, to guide a course of treatment, and to predict treatment outcomes, in lieu of relying on costly, trial-and-error approaches. Psychotherapy and empathy research also demonstrate that the patient-doctor relationship has important neurophysiological correlates that can be salient to treatment outcomes, as illustrated in a case example. These correlates include autonomic nervous system arousal manifested by heart rate, respiration rate, muscle tension, and galvanic skin resistance; electroencephalography; and brain-imaging markers. While additional biomarker research is unfolding, there are specific neurobiologically based clinical and subclinical observations, organized by using the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. mnemonic, that may guide and enhance psychotherapy. Empathic attunement to patients is equally relevant for psychopharmacologic interventions and psychotherapy, and for all patient-doctor relationships.
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