Neurofeedback is a learning strategy, similar to Biofeedback, that enables a person to change their brain waves. Neurofeedback goes by many names: EEG Neurofeedback; EEG Biofeedback; Brainwave Biofeedback; Neurotherapy; or Neurobiofeedback. Because it teaches the brain to change itself, it is used for many conditions and disabilities in which the brain is not functioning as well as it might.
Research has demonstrated that various brainwave frequencies are related to specific qualities of arousal, alertness, attention, and consciousness. Research has also shown that Neurofeedback improves emotional regulation or mood, behavior, cognitive function, brain damage from head injuries, alcoholism and other addictions, and mental flexibility.
It has been shown to be helpful even for conditions that have often been considered untreatable such as autism. It is now clear that Neurofeedback teaches the brain to change itself and the training produces a measurable physiological effect. Excessive fast or slow activity is associated with brain dysregulation.
Neurofeedback is a safe, painless, and noninvasive method for teaching the brain how to better regulate itself. Once these changes are practiced and learned, the effects tend to hold, at least for the majority of problems. As the brain learns to improve its own regulation, it often reduces reliance on medications. Sometimes, it allows medications that were not working well to work better. Brain self-regulation has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years in the form of meditation, yoga, and martial-arts.
Biofeedback allows a person to learn to change their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, muscle tension, so too does a person learn to change brain activity. By using a computer, brain activity is detected. When information is ‘fed-back’ to the brain visually and by the use of sounds, the brain learns to optimize its functioning. Brainwave activity is monitored, electronically, from sensors placed on the scalp. The therapist sets conditions that let the patient know when brainwave activity is moving in the desired direction. The instruments direct the brain to make a certain type of brain activity and when it does, the computer makes a game work and gives an auditory sound to reinforce the correct training. When the brain receives information about itself, it has an enormous capacity for change.
Neurofeedback makes the information available to the brain almost instantly, and asks it to make adjustments and the brain responds rapidly. The brain ‘exercises’ to make itself more efficient. And like exercising other muscles, change is noticed on a gradual basis.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the key to modifying the brain, according to scientists. The last decade of neurological research has been looking at the brain’s plasticity or its ability to reshape and reorganize itself through adulthood. Scientists once believed that the brain’s neural pathways formed within the first few years of life, and once formed, were largely fixed and unchanging. Research is finding that the structure of the brain’s neural network changes during an individual’s lifetime in response to experience, activity, and external stimuli (of which Neurofeedback is one).
For example, a person who goes blind and learns to read Braille will show a remarkable increase in the size of the region of their brain that processes the sense of touch devoted to their right index finger. The violin player will show an enlargement associated with the fingers of their left hand, which move about the neck of the instrument playing notes, as opposed to those on the right hand, which merely holds the bow. The man learning how to juggle for three months shows an increase in two areas in his brain involved in visual and motor activity. When he stops juggling, those areas go back to their previous size.
How did Neurofeedback get started?
In the 1960’s, Dr. Barry Sterman, a neuroscientist at UCLA medical school, proved that cats in his lab could be trained to make more EEG brain activity at 12-15 Hz frequencies using operant conditioning. In humans, 12-15 Hz is a state of arousal which promotes calmness, regulates impulsivity and hyperactivity, promotes body awareness, controls anxiety and anger, and quiets the central nervous system. Dr. Sterman later worked with monkeys. The cats were rewarded when they produced this brainwave. As the 12-15 Hz activity increased, the cats received more rewards. Sterman then used the same cats for a NASA contract to investigate whether rocket fuel could cause seizure activity. The cats (Sterman cats and normal cats) were exposed to a volatile fuel, hydrazine. Half the cats had seizures in one hour, while the other half of the cats-those who had increased their brainwaves to 12-15 Hz in the last experiment, had a dramatic reduction in seizures compared to the normal cats. It was a very unexpected outcome. After additional research, EEG training was tried on a woman working in Sterman’s lab who suffered from uncontrolled seizures. She was also trained at 12-15 Hz. The training had the same effect that it did on the cats, to inhibit seizures, and the woman was able to get her California Drivers license after not having had one before.
From starting with Epilepsy, Neurofeedback has branched into sleep disorders, learning disabilities, mood disorders, conduct problems, pain problems, head injuries, addictions, and more. Training is used with patients both on and off medications. As the brain becomes stable and better regulated, medications, psychotherapy, and other modalities often become more effective. It is not uncommon to see a reduced need for medications as brain regulation increases.