Neurofeedback

from an article in the June 19, 2000, Newsweek Magazine and from www.eegspectrum.com

Three years ago Jake‘s parents sought out a clinic offering neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback that involves displaying a person‘s brain waves on a computer screen and helping him control them. Jake would sit at a monitor with a sensor on his scalp, and whenever his brain achieved the calm, steady rhythms that normally eluded him, a Pac-Man would start gobbling black dots and beeping. Soon he was controlling the screen action at will, by recognizing the way it feels when the Pac-Man goes to work, and his brain was growing more stable.

"It took care of his teeth grinding and sleep problems in two sessions," says his mother. Within a week Jake was using scissors and developing a range of other fine motor skills. The number of seizures dropped. His schoolwork improved dramatically.

Applications. Though biofeedback is best known for stress-reduction, researchers in clinics, universities and even NASA are now working to refine the type that deals with brain waves. Called neurofeedback (or EEG feedback, because it uses an electroencephalogram), the technology is emerging as a tool to treat everything from epilepsy and attention-deficit disorder to autism, migraines, anxiety, depression, head injuries, sleep disorders and addiction. In the last few years, neurofeedback has made its way into the offices of hundreds of reputable doctors, psychologists and counselors.

AD(H)D. The most prominent application is to AD(H)D. The business of the brain really is paying attention - not only to the outside world, but also to internal processes, through which it monitors its own activities and those of the body. When children with AD(H)D train certain brain rhythms, hyperactivity and impulsivity decrease and vigilance improves. Often children can normalize their behavior with twenty to forty training sessions.

Behavioral and emotional problems. Predictably, other aspects of behavior that often accompany AD(H) D also improve. Children make fewer errors on cognitive tests, response time improves, obsessiveness and bed-wetting decrease, and sugar craving may disappear, along with motor and vocal tics. Training can also alleviate disregulation of moods and emotions in a depressed, anxious, withdrawn, angry, or defiant child. IQ scores frequently improve and handwriting may suddenly get better. The effect of training is far-reaching.... or the self-regulatory functions of the nervous system may simply be stronger.

Learning Disabilities. EEG training can also address specific learning disabilities such as visual retention, arithmetic skill deficits, difficulties in spatial relations and language processing. The technique is unique in that it can specifically target shortcomings in localized hemispherically specialized functions. Jake, for example, would train his right hemisphere for spatial processing (geometry), his left hemisphere for dyslexia, and his frontal areas for articulation problems.

Seizures. Neurofeedback was originally a treatment for epilepsy, still a prominent area of application. Training generally stabilizes the brain. The treatment may have to be long-term, but some gain is usually observable in improved level of function, reduced medication, and perhaps avoidance of brain surgery for intractable seizures.

Autism. Individuals with high functioning autism, who respond well to computer tasks, and who can tolerate electrodes on their scalps, can also benefit. The best candidates for EEG training are those whose problems are more purely neurophysiological, with no compounding family and psychological issues.

Cost. Though neurofeedback appears to be very safe, it’s expensive; evaluation and 20 or more sessions can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. And while that‘s about the same as auditory training or vision therapy, not all insurance covers it. The systems are simple to use however, and a few practitioners lease units to patients, who can, with an office visit and phone counseling, take them home and do the training at a fraction of the usual cost.

It is exciting to think that such a painless, non-invasive, and relatively fast technology can help reorganize the brain to promote greater attention, better self-control, or improved learning. "I feel like someone has given us a piano and we‘ve learned to play a couple of keys," says Sue Othmer, Executive Director of EEG Spectrum, a company that makes neurofeedback equipment, trains people to use it, and has several hundred affiliates around the country. Jake’s parents say he has made far more progress than they dared to dream. The few keys he plays sound like a symphony to them.

To learn more about neurofeedback read Jim Robbin’s fascinating book, A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave BiofeedbackA Symphony in the Brain, and visit www.eegspectrum.com, www.ct-ed.com, and www.biofeedbacksolutions.com/.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 5 - Summer, 2001]

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