Neurofeedback therapy capitalizes on the brain’s ability to rewire and retrain itself in order to treat injury and disease such as traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), autism, PTSD and more. Patients don’t need to take a pill or deep-dive into past traumas to glean the benefits of this therapy. So what exactly is this potentially revolutionary treatment?
Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks
Neuroplasticity is an increasing area of study due to the myriad applications for rewiring neural connections, or quite literally retraining and regulating the way the brain functions. Scientists used to believe that neuroplasticity reduces in late childhood, but they now know that this capability is retained or even increased in older years, though dysregulated. What this means is that the older brain is increasingly sensitive to training, but retention of this new information decreases as we age. It becomes easier to learn and easier to forget.
Scientists have not yet found an effective drug treatment for declined attention and memory in older adults, which makes alternative therapies such as neurofeedback attractive areas of study. Recent studies on neurofeedback training provide evidence that it improves cognitive functions such as attention and memory as well as treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. It has also been used in studies for the treatment of anxiety, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, PTSD and sleep problems.
Types of Neurofeedback Therapy
There are many methods of neurofeedback therapy, all using a variety of methods and protocols to regulate the brain. Electroencephalogram (EEG) neurofeedback therapy is the most traditional and uses real-time measurements of neural activity to enhance brain function and behaviors, optimizing performance over time. Activity is measured via electrodes placed on the scalp and visualized as brain waves which are recorded on the EEG. Different electrode placements, frequency ranges and treatment protocols are used based on the type of outcome desired. For instance, alpha waves are associated with pleasant relaxation, while high frequency training such as beta and theta are used to reinforce focus and performance.
During a neurofeedback therapy session, the patient is essentially playing video games with their mind. Audio and/or visual feedback is provided based on desirable or undesirable brain activity. The subject tries to improve brain patterns based on the positive or negative feedback changes they are receiving. Brain-computer interface systems (BCI) go one step further by placing the subject in an interactive world where users are given tasks to complete by navigating and manipulating three-dimensional objects.
In any neurofeedback protocol, instant positive feedback is given when the brain activity meets the intended goal. This positive feedback increases the desired activity, over time changing the brain’s function. These new neural pathways result in changes in memory, attention, emotions and behavior. Continued practice further cements these new brain pathways, effectively treating the issue on a neural level rather than simply masking symptoms.
Pros and Cons of Neurofeedback Therapy
While neurofeedback therapy is not new per se, it is somewhat lacking in conclusive clinical studies regarding its efficacy. Many studies have been performed, but methodical limitations and non-standardized protocols make for a lack of conclusive clinical evidence. Early research shows great promise in its effectiveness to treat a wide variety of problems and disorders, but very few studies have been done on the long-term effects, especially once treatment has stopped. The treatment is rarely covered by insurance companies and can be quite expensive depending on the number of sessions needed.
Professional groups like the International Society of Neurofeedback and Research are lobbying for regulation of the therapy and protocols in order to protect patients from unskilled practitioners. The FDA has not cleared neurofeedback for anything more than relaxation training, therefore making any additional uses experimental in nature. Potential mishaps could be avoided through regulation, standardization and training guidelines for the treatment. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback and the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance both have provider directories to help patients find trained and certified practitioners.
Neurofeedback is a seemingly non-invasive and safe procedure, and patients enjoy the therapy because they are active participants in their treatment. Studies on adults and children with significant trauma-related disorders have demonstrated significant improvement in executive functioning. This affects one’s ability to focus, function in relationships and inhibit impulses. Neurofeedback could make a significant difference in the lives of people who struggle to function due to an injury or disorder.
As sports-related injuries such as concussion and TBIs are taken more seriously, and the rates of debilitating disorders such as autism, PTSD and anxiety increase, the need for a non-invasive treatment for improved brain function becomes more important. New technologies and advances in the field of neuroscience are helping pave the way toward further understanding of mental illness and neural processes. While limitations exist, hopefully better research will support the positive results already seen.
Until there are more objective guidelines and clinical studies proving the efficacy of neurofeedback training, patients would be wise to do plenty of research before signing on for this fairly unregulated treatment. That said, it is an exciting and promising treatment for a multitude of disorders, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for this innovative therapy.