Neurobiofeedback, Part 2

Brain

Influence can be exerted on the brain chemically or electrically. In the realm of chemistry, many of the examples have to do with the food that fuels the body and brain, how a person is influenced to eat more or less of it, and what kind of food they choose if choice is available.

To get an idea of some of the substances and processes involved, there is a page within a Medscape graphics-and-text presentation by Gabriel I. Uwaifo that helps visualize where different things happen in the body and brain. (The presentation also includes an impressive list of obesity comorbidities and an equally thought-provoking roster of secondary causes of obesity.)

Orexigenic mediators, it tells us, are associated with hunger and energy conservation. Anorectic mediators are associated with satiety and increased energy expenditure. Inhibitory signals are sent. Stimulatory signals are sent. The stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, muscle, and adipose tissue all get into the act.

In many ways, eating habits and brain chemistry are closely related. This is what a large part of the pharmaceutical industry is based on. Also, the food industry. The things we eat influence our brains a lot. MSG and aspartame mess with neurochemicals. Malfunctioning neurotransmitters are seen as the cause of addiction.

With electricity and technology, the chemical route can be bypassed and the brain can be influenced in another way. It can even be persuaded to abandon addictive patterns. Let’s suppose that food addiction is real, and look at what clinical psychologist Collins says about the uses of neurofeedback in treating alcohol and drug addictions:

It is possible to learn to control one’s brain states from within, without drugs and alcohol. In this way, addictions can be overcome without a lifetime of struggle and craving. Neurofeedback (also called EEG biofeedback) trains the brain to modulate its level of activity, to become more or less activated according to the needs of the individual.

Collins stresses that this kind of treatment is not new, having been pioneered over 30 years ago. Treatment, he says, often begins with a quantitative EEG. Depending on the individual, the cortex either needs to speed up or slow down. Many alcoholics and other addicts suffer from a deficiency in alpha and theta brainwaves. Alpha is responsible for a relaxed, alert state, and theta for a state of “reverie and intense imagery.” Collins calls these patients cortically hyperaroused.

The therapy consists of teaching the person to increase their alpha waves first, and then the theta. A darkened room is preferred, or at least a light-excluding mask for the patient. A reclining chair and a blanket enhance the sense of security and relaxation.

Collins says,

The person progresses into a relaxed, then dreamy and hypnogogic state. Eyes are closed, and they receive feedback via sounds presented through headphones… While in the hypnogogic theta state the client is asked to do visualizations picturing refusal to drink (or to do drugs) and abstinence from alcohol and other substances.

With other substances, abuse problems have another origin. Addicts whose drug of choice is methamphetamine or cocaine have a different kind of brain scenario going on — they are cortically under-aroused, so a different treatment protocol is called for.

Collins talks about a study funded by the Houston Endowment, of some jobless, homeless street people on crack cocaine who were treated with neurofeedback and then kept track of for as long as a year and a half. Their success was judged by very strict standards. For a passing grade, four criteria had to be fulfilled: not on drugs, not homeless, not unemployed, not arrested.

Collins says,

The results have been overwhelming positive. Preliminary results show that 83% of clients are successful in meeting all four criteria.

If neurofeedback can do that for really hardcore addicts, imagine how much it can do for kids hooked on fast food. As we know, Dr. Pretlow sees addiction to hyperpalatable foods as the root cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. He is optimistic about the role of neurofeedback in treating childhood obesity, suggesting,

Someday, there may be a cheap portable neurofeedback unit that obese kids can use at home to help them quell cravings and learn to ease stress and anxiety without turning to food, and thereby break their addiction.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Neuro-circuits related to the pathogenesis of Obesity and the Feeding Satiety Cycle,” Medscape, 09/02/11
Source: “Neurofeedback for Addictions:The State of the Science,” ISNR.org
Image by Dierk Schaefer, used under its Creative Commons license.

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