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Schiepek, Guenter; Viol, Kathrin; Aas, Benjamin; Kastinger, Anna; Kronbichler, Martin; Schoeller, Helmut; Reiter, Eva-Maria; Said-Yuerekli, Sarah; Kronbichler, Lisa; Kravanja-Spannberger, Brigitte; Stoeger-Schmidinger, Barbara; Aichhorn, Wolfgang; Battaglia, Demian and Jirsa, Viktor (2021): Pathologically reduced neural flexibility recovers during psychotherapy of OCD patients. In: Neuroimage-Clinical, Vol. 32, 102844

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Flexibility is a key feature of psychological health, allowing the individual to dynamically adapt to changing environmental demands, which is impaired in many psychiatric disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Adequately responding to varying demands requires the brain to switch between different patterns of neural activity, which are represented by different brain network configurations (functional connectivity patterns). Here, we operationalize neural flexibility as the dissimilarity between consecutive connectivity matrices of brain regions (jump length). In total, 132 fMRI scans were obtained from 17 patients that were scanned four to five times during inpatient psychotherapy, and from 17 controls that were scanned at comparable time intervals. Significant negative correlations were found between the jump lengths and the symptom severity scores of OCD, depression, anxiety, and stress, suggesting that high symptom severity corresponds to inflexible brain functioning. Further analyses revealed that impaired reconfiguration (pattern stability) of the brain seems to be more related to general psychiatric impairment rather than to specific symptoms, e.g., of OCD or depression. Importantly, the group x time interaction of a repeated measures ANOVA was significant, as well as the post-hoc paired t-tests of the patients (first vs. last scan). The results suggest that psychotherapy is able to significantly increase the neural flexibility of patients. We conclude that psychiatric symptoms like anxiety, stress, depression, and OCD are associated with an impaired adaptivity of the brain. In general, our results add to the growing evidence that dynamic functional connectivity captures meaningful properties of brain functioning.

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