|Understanding Neurofeedback |
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, is also referred to as Neurotherapy or EEG-Biofeedback. Biofeedback is an age-old technique that is based on the principle of awareness: e.g., if a person concentrates on a bodily function, such as heart rate or pain, then he or she can change it. Neurofeedback is a more recent advancement with the goal to change the frequency of brain waves so that the brain's executive functions work more efficiently.
Our cortex, or the "smart" part of our brain, mediates executive functions. They include attention, inhibition of inappropriate responses, planning, abstract thinking, and transitioning. These functions serve to "organize" our brain and help us perform up to our potential. Executive functions are compromised in those who have ADHD, developmental disorders, addictive disorders, and those who have experienced trauma-among many others.
What is a "Brain Wave"?
Very simply, they a fragment of the summed and integrated electrical activity from millions of neurons depolarizing that is detected in an area of the brain when using EEG (see below). Over decades, using a variety of EEG (and related techniques) certain patterns have been detected and analyzed. Though a great deal remains speculative, certain behavioral and emotional states appear to be correlated with certain patterns of activity. In neurofeedback, the target of the biofeedback process are these patterns or "brain waves."
Why Change Brain Waves?
There are four general patterns of activity seen: beta, alpha, theta, and delta (in order from fastest to slowest). Beta waves are seen when the mind is the most engaged, as in when we are teaching or talking with others, and delta waves are seen when we are asleep. Alpha and theta waves are more commonly seen we are relaxed and disengaged from the present moment. For example, people are usually the most creative when theta waves are active. For those readers familiar with the "alarm/arousal" continuum that the CTA uses to teach, quite simply, these various patterns correspond to different stages along the arousal continuum. These are reasonable reflections of the individual's "state."
How Does it Work?
There are various protocols. In general, however, neurofeedback treatment, involves connecting the individual to an EEG machine with electrodes placed on the scalp. The electrodes are connected to a computer, which can then manipulate the incoming signals to create some representation of activity. Diagnostic instruments such as the TOVA (Test of Variables of Attention) can be used to roughly localize various patterns of activity.
At this point, a variety of techniques very similar to traditional biofeedback paradigms are used. There may be a computerized game, visual imagery or various cognitive or emotional exercises that can be used to see if the individual can begin to "shape" the activity of their pattern of neural activity. While some practioners of
Next, a person plays a series of computer games that reward the brain for using the most adaptive brain waves. For example, the game might require a person to use more beta waves than alpha waves for a car to drive or to get points in a competition. When the correct brain waves are being used, the person will be successful at the game - and when the correct brain waves are not being use, the person will fail at the game. Thus, Neurofeedback is based on principles of operant conditioning - or learning via reinforcement. Through a series of treatment sessions, a person's brain activity can change permanently.
What does it Treat?
Unfortunately the body of well-controlled outcome studies with adequate numbers of subjects, suitable comparison groups and blinding is very small, the existing body of evidence is promising. A review of recent scientific literature suggests that neurofeedback techniques have been promising in ADHD, substance abuse, the behavioral issues in developmental disorders, PTSD, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and other psychological complications. A few randomized controlled clinical trials show that neurofeedback may be as effective as stimulants in the treatment of ADHD (which themselves, unfortunately have questionable long-term efficacy), and that clinical improvements are enduring (e.g., they last even when neurofeedback is no longer being used). Obviously, as with all areas of research in child mental health, more research is needed to understand and outline the full benefits and limitations of this promising set of techniques. outcomes are promising.
For further reading: