Introduction to Neurofeedback
“Imagine a simple procedure versatile enough to treat epilepsy, autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), addictions, and depression without drugs, surgery, or side effects. These are only some of the capabilities of neurofeedback, a controversial but effective treatment that is growing rapidly in use around the world.” (Symphony in the Brain, 2000)
Neurofeedback uses electroencephalograms (EEG’s) and a computer to provide feedback to patients so that they can “train their brain” to work at more productive frequencies. It’s like exercise for the brain. Imagine if you were a long distance runner, but you started the race out at a sprint pace. Halfway through the race, you would be breathing hard, gasping for air, your muscles might be starting to quiver, and you would be starting to lose speed. Not very effective functioning. That’s because you ran the wrong pace for the task. Well your brain is like this too. It has several different “speeds” for different tasks. In brain talk, these are called “hertz.” Slower brain waves are useful when sleeping, and the faster the brain wave, the more alert a person is. When a person is walking, talking and functioning, the brain should operate like a symphony, perfectly timed for the task. However, for some people, their brain might let slower speeds creep in, or their brain waves might not be firing in synchrony. Just like the runner mentioned above, this leads to inefficient functioning. And, brains can get locked in these inefficient rhythms. That’s where neurofeedback steps in.
During neurofeedback, a patient is hooked up to EEG leads attached to their scalp. This doesn’t hurt, but you may get a little gel in your hair. After the initial EEG reading is done, a program is selected for that client’s particular needs. The patient sits quite comfortably, watches a computer screen, hears listens for beeps, and can hear music along with the visuals. The program depends on what parts of the brain need training, and what hertz level the brain is producing. For example, kids who have A.D.D. actually have their brains letting slower speeds slip in. Just think, when you are overly tired, and trying to drive. You do lots of things to keep yourself awake, turn on the radio, roll down the window etc. Well, kids with ADD have slower hertz in their brains, and they are trying to keep themselves alert with their hyperactivity. (that’s why stimulants like Ritalin work for ADD kids) What neurofeedback does is help the brain even out those slow speeds or fast speeds to the pace that is needed to function at the desired task. Once the brain is functioning at the right speed, often times the medication can be reduced or even terminated. Children on the autistic spectrum often have over activated portions in their brains. The sensory part of their brain is not well regulated, thus they tend to have difficulty with loud noises, bright lights, the feel of fabrics etc. Autistic spectrum youth often have multiple areas of the brain affected, such as impulse control and the ability to “shift mental gears.” That is why youth with Autism often get “stuck” on one topic.
Without going into lots of medical detail, the brain sends messages throughout itself using branchlike connections. (synapsis) The thicker and denser the branches are, the better the transfer of information. Not only cognitive thoughts are passed through these connections, but so are unconscious emotions. Sometimes in abused and neglected children, PET scans show holes in their brains, where the connections were not made. In other cases of traumatized people, their brains overact in the fear regulation area, known as the fight or flight response. They produce lots of cortisol, which can harm the brain. So as you can see, there are a number of reasons the brain connections may be weak, or lacking the connections necessary to function.
A hypothesis of what may be happening in neurotherapy, is that “as frequency of information transfer increases, the brain is activated, more blood than usual streams into that area of the brain-the nutrients in the blood may be strengthening (Symphony in the Brain). This is just like if you exercise your arm by lifting weights, the muscle will become stronger. Conversely, if you put that same are in a sling for 6 weeks and didn’t use it, it would become small and atrophied. The brain is also a muscle, and neurotherapy is like cognitive physical fitness training. Some people have been using one part of their brain so much, that the other parts are not developed. Neurotherapy attempts to strengthen pathways in the brain, so that the brain can send and receive messages from all parts of the brain in an effective and efficient manner to achieve balance.
With the expanding computer world and technology, it is becoming easier to see exactly what is going on in the brain during the process. Neurofeedback does NOT cure Autism, but it can help manage and reduce the associated symptoms such as impulsiveness, sensory issues, and cognitive flexibility.
References: A Symphony in the Brain, 2000, Jim Robbins; Atlantic Monthly Press.
The Executive Brain, 2001, Elkhonon Goldberg, Oxford University Press.
The Emotional Brain, 1996, Joseph LeDoux, Touchstone
Getting Rid of Ritalin,
The Brain Explained,