Neurobiofeedback, Part 1

Conference Biofeedback

Deborah A. Stokes and Martha S. Lappin tell us that while peripheral biofeedback monitors responses of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, such as respiration and galvanic skin response, neurofeedback monitors the activity of the central nervous system. Although the field is in its infancy, evidence suggests that neurotherapy can help many cognitive, emotional, and physical problems. Post-traumatic stress disorder is getting a lot of attention currently, and neurotherapy is also useful in such widely varied areas as autism and traumatic brain injury.

Stokes and Lappin write,

Neurotherapy is a broad term referring to the many types of biofeedback used to deliver information about the central nervous system which involve blood flow, thermal output from the brain or electrical activity. Neurofeedback (also called neurobiofeedback or EEG biofeedback) usually refers to frequency-based biofeedback that uses an EEG to give clients information about their brainwaves and gradually and subtly teaches people how to alter their brainwave activity.

As an observation window into the brain, the technology can be a self-help tool, as well as a diagnostic instrument and a discovery method. This is how researchers learned that brain activity in obese people is similar to brain activity in hard drug addicts; so similar, in fact, that it is identical. To Dr. Pretlow and many others, it proves that food addiction is as real as the classical addictions to alcohol, nicotine, morphine, etc.

In Overweight: What Kids Say, he writes:

A chemical in the brain, dopamine, is involved in the development of addiction to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Dopamine receptors, which absorb the chemical, appear on PET brain scans as dark areas. Dopamine receptor levels are much lower in both drug addicted and obese people, as compared to the PET brain scans of healthy weight people (control subjects). Similar to drug addicts, the brains of obese individuals also have been ‘rewired’ by dopamine changes.

So, how to rewire the rewiring? Surprisingly, not with more chemicals. Neurobiofeedback can retrain an errant brain without introducing molecules of anything into the body. Drug-free therapy is a boon in many ways, from sparing the patient annoying or dangerous side effects to keeping stray pharmaceuticals out of the municipal water supply.

Of course, neurobiofeedback has its drawbacks, too. When this kind of science intersects with law enforcement and forensics, society has a lot of big questions to answer. Although it is technically non-invasive because it doesn’t penetrate a patient’s skin, in another sense, peeking at the activity of someone’s brain is about as invasive as an action can be. And then there are the professionals who use it to figure out the most effective ways to advertise products, such as junk food.

How does neurofeedback actually work as a tool for making changes in the brain? How does it rewire the rewiring? Can we just accept that it works, without needing to know how?

Dr. Siegfried Othmer of the EEG Institute says,

Even though our understanding may be limited, the reduction to practice is relatively straightforward. We simply have to know enough to cue the brain at any moment as to the direction in which improved performance lies, and that turns out not to be difficult at all in most instances… We reward the brain for moving to a state of higher complexity, or what is known as higher dimensionality… Remarkably, the brain learns from these cues and slowly changes its own habits. Life then reinforces the learned behavior so that the acquired skills of self-regulation are retained.

The Othmer neurobiofeedback model is utilized by MindStream, whose residence program favors it because its video games are effective with the young. Director Sarah Stone says,

It’s remarkable, our kids started doing better in school, their focus was better. I would encourage anyone to do biofeedback entrainment. It’s one of those things that you need to experience for it to really come together… it’s a pretty cool experience.

The Othmer method is also employed by Dr. Adela Chirita-Emandi, a Romanian pediatrician who says, in email correspondence with Dr. Pretlow, that the training is done in 20 sessions of 30 minutes each, twice a week. The symptoms guide the electrode placement and the adjustments made during training.

She describes the process:

I work only with the left prefrontal cortex (I place the electrodes there) in order to improve impulse control and sugar cravings… It is like biofeedback only it uses EEG. The feedback uses a video game — for example a car race — when the patient is in alpha waves, the system rewards that, by moving the car. When the patient is agitated the system ‘punishes’ by slowing the car, or stopping the car and by blackening the screen. So, the brain understands that it is doing that and adapts, just like looking in the mirror.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Neurofeedback and biofeedback with 37 migraineurs: a clinical outcome study,” Behavioral and Brain Functions, 02/02/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,” Amazon.com
Source: “Overview of Neurofeedback Mechanisms: Setting the Agenda for Research,” EEG Info, 07/07
Image by xdxd_vs_xdxd, used under its Creative Commons license.

Comments

  1. I underwent neurofeedback with Dr. Stokes this past year to help me with my compulsive overeating. One of the protocols we used is the alpha-theta protocol, which has been researched as a treatment for alcoholics.

    This has been life-changing for me. Episodes of stress-induced eating have drastically been reduced (this has been helped by following a whole foods diet low in sugar and refined carbs).

    I hope that more researchers look into this. It’s certainly far less invasive than weight loss surgery!

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