Neurofeedback is EEG assisted brain training. It is used to treat a broad variety of problems such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, ADD, brain injury, post-stroke recovery, memory loss, migraine and several other problems.
Neurofeedback was first used in the 1960s to treat epilepsy which is a condition where a specific area of the brain spontaneously becomes overactive causing seizures. It was found that EEG recordings of the levels of activity in the 4 different types of brain waves was imbalanced in those prone to seizures. Repeated training of the specific imbalanced brain waves with EEG monitoring could eventually normalize the brain electrical pattern controlling or greatly reducing seizures.
Since that time neurofeedback has been used for many other conditions that have been associated with imbalanced brain wave patterns with equal success.
Neurofeedback training uses a method called operant conditioning to “teach” the brain back into a more balanced activation pattern. Monitoring EEG electrodes are worn over the lobes to be trained and this is integrated with a computer movie. If the target is to inhibit theta waves and increase beta waves, the brain is rewarded when it can create this pattern of activation. The reward is that the movie is very clear and the sound is normal. If the brain wanders to the old pattern of activation, the movie and sound dull causing the brain to try to rebalance the activation again. With time the brain learns to maintain its balanced pattern without the stimulation.
Operant conditioning is a sophisticated extension of Pavlov’s original theory where he conditioned dogs to salivate to an auditory tone. The dogs were observed to salivate when they received food in the same fashion repetitively. Over time they began to salivate simply when they observed the person who would always feed them. A tone was then played at the time they would see the feeding preparation. Over time the dogs could be made to salivate simply when the tone was played. Pavlov’s conditioning was the beginning of a primary school of psychology called behaviorism which dominated treatment for most of the 20th century.
The EEG brainmap below shows an excess of slow waves (delta, theta) in the brain during an active task where faster (beta) waves show dominate. This is a typical imbalance seen in ADHD and brain injury.
Neurofeedback works on the concept of neuroplasticity. This simply means that if the brain is stimulated into a particular activation pattern, the brain cells or neurons begin to form connections which result in “learning” of this function. Many brain problems begin through negative neuroplasticity or the activation of the brain in a punitive way repeatedly which changes the long-term activation pattern into that pattern. Prolonged stress is a classic example of negative or punitive neuroplasticity.
Stress activates certain brain functions but at the expense of others. During stress the brain becomes excessively focused placing many of the body systems involved in the “fight or flight response” on active alert. This heightened activity in the brain’s attention network, however, comes at the expense of other brain areas and functions, the most notable being the brain areas involved in memory.
With repeated or prolonged stress, the brain rewires its activation pattern to one of ongoing activation of the attention network and ongoing inhibition of memory and cognitive processing function. The “learned” activation of the attention network during normal activity creates the phenomenon of anxiety.
Stress is not merely a mental phenomenon. Stress reactions may be induced by chemical and physical events as well. One of the most potent inducers of the stress activation responses in the brain is inflammation. All patients are carefully screened for common triggers of brain imbalance such as food sensitivities and other dietary related problems.
Once the original trigger has been found and managed and the brain has been trained back into a normal activation pattern, lasting results occur typically without ongoing need for treatments such as medications. Neurofeedback has the advantage over other treatments such as drugs of not simply compensating effect but rather correcting the driving imbalance. It also does not have the adverse event risk seen with many medications. If it has a drawback, it is that it is an active process creating the effect over time with active training.