What do Betsy DeVos, Former Secretary of Education, Tobias Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Tony Robbins, motivational speaker, have in common? They have all utilized neurofeedback therapy to improve their lives.
If you’ve never heard of biofeedback or neurofeedback therapy, you may be wondering, what is neurofeedback? It is a type of therapy that improves mood, sleep, anxiety, attention, and even athletic ability. It’s not a new type of therapy—it was pioneered in the 1950s by two researchers, Dr. Joseph Kamiya of the University of Chicago, and Dr. Barry Sterman at UCLA. These researchers used neurofeedback equipment to learn that the brain reacts positively to a reward system and that people can retrain their thought patterns through various reward systems. Since then, it has continued to gain popularity as a treatment for many conditions.
So, how does neurofeedback work? A noninvasive test called electroencephalography (EEG) measures brainwaves and transmits them into a graph or audio. Your healthcare provider then interprets the graph or audio and determines which brainwave frequency feedback could benefit you.
To measure brain wave activity, you must get an EEG test. Though some people may be hesitant to get this test for fear of pain or even brain damage, EEGs are noninvasive and merely detect brain activity — they don’t stimulate it. Your therapist will give you a cap to wear with metal discs, called electrodes, attached to it. You’ll watch a video or listen to audio intended to stimulate different reactions in the brain, and the EEG will measure these reactions to determine what sort of treatment is needed. The electrodes will transmit the electrical activity in your brain to a computer to make it readable by your neurofeedback therapist.
After getting an EEG, you can discuss with your therapist what the best course of action will be for your individual needs, and you’ll then begin training the brain with positive feedback. The goal is to create harmony between brainwaves. Disharmony of the brainwaves — some moving too fast, and others too slow — is thought to be the root cause of many conditions and disorders.
In many cases, you’re asked to “control” a video with your mind, making the screen brighter with healthy thinking patterns and darker with negative thinking patterns. Over time, you’ll learn to control your thoughts and emotions better.
Think of the example of riding a bike: the more you do it, the more it becomes ingrained as muscle memory. Neurofeedback operates under the same concept — if you train your brain to be in certain states (calmness, happiness, focus) more often, you’ll experience those states more often naturally. It also utilizes a reward system, so patients will be “rewarded” with audio or video when thinking in healthy ways. Over time, the brain — seeking a reward — will continue to respond in healthy ways, even without neurofeedback treatment.
One of the most appealing parts of neurofeedback therapy is treating various conditions, from chronic pain to Parkinson’s. While it can treat multiple issues, not all neurofeedback therapists can treat all conditions. For this reason, it’s essential to find a reliable therapist who treats the condition(s) you’re looking to treat.
Neurofeedback treatment is used commonly in the treatment of mental health problems. This includes those with OCD, anxiety, panic, and other mood disorders. A 2019 study showed promising improvements for people with treatment-resistant depression (TRD): nearly 60% of people with TRD saw improvement in their symptoms and recovery.1
Neurofeedback encourages calmer, happier, and safer feelings. For example, treatment for anxiety disorders may involve decreasing excess beta waves (associated with anxiety) and increasing alpha waves (associated with calmness).
People with ADHD, pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have had success with neurofeedback therapy.
In many people with developmental disorders, the brain lacks the correct networks for communication. Therefore, the therapy can be beneficial for people with autism who struggle to communicate. It can significantly change the brain networks to improve symptoms, communication, and self-regulation.
Neurofeedback treatment for those with neurological issues and brain injuries includes those who have traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, tinnitus, or Parkinson’s. In Parkinson’s patients, the brain can get “locked” into a particular way of behaving as their neurons travel the same pathways repeatedly. The treatment is groundbreaking for Parkinson’s patients because it allows them to control their brains, creating new neural pathways and improving symptoms.
Even people who don’t have mental health conditions or neurological issues can benefit from neurofeedback. Because it calms and focuses the mind, people in high-pressure situations — like athletes, executives, and students—can benefit from neurofeedback to achieve optimal functioning.
Neurofeedback treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are different methods and protocols used to treat various conditions. How does neurofeedback work in the context of each protocol? Read on to find out.
This type of therapy aims to help people with ADHD, epilepsy, and migraines. Research shows it could be a treatment for ADHD as a potential alternative to medication; in a study with children with ADHD who received this type of neurofeedback treatment, results showed improvements in attention, IQ, and behavior.2
Neurofeedback training is a different experience for everyone. The beginning of treatment may be frustrating, and you may find it difficult at first to control your brain the way you’re supposed to when completing the activities. However, this is completely normal and improves over time.
Because training the neural feedback system requires some focus and concentration, you may feel tired after your neurofeedback sessions. Bio neurofeedback is an adaptive learning process, so you’ll be continually learning and training your brain in new ways with each session. As you progress in the therapy, your neurofeedback therapist will track your symptoms with behavioral questionnaires and may also administer a neurofeedback test called the CPT test, which tests attention span and impulsivity. Regular testing and tracking symptoms can help you and your doctor see your progress.
Some people who try brain wave therapy may worry that their symptoms aren’t improving and wonder if neurofeedback is effective. Though some people experience significant improvements in their symptoms after just one session, it takes much longer than that for many. Research shows an average of 12-20 sessions is required to achieve maximum benefits from the therapy. Though it may be a slow process, it has a lasting impact.
People who complete neurofeedback training report feeling:
Studies show it’s effective in:
Neurofeedback can help epilepsy patients reduce the frequency of their seizures.
In people with epilepsy, part of the brain becomes unstable and can trigger other parts to destabilize, which leads to seizures. However, studies show that neurofeedback makes it possible to “train the brain to de-emphasize rhythms that lead to generation and propagation of seizure and emphasize rhythms that make seizures less likely to occur.” 4
According to the same study, recent improvements in neurofeedback therapy have made it possible to eliminate seizures or greatly reduce the amount of medication needed to control seizures.
Does neurofeedback work for ADHD? A study conducted in 2002 by Vincent Monastra studied 100 children who had been diagnosed with ADHD. All of the children were prescribed Ritalin, and half of them were enrolled in neurofeedback training. The kids who did this training in addition to taking Ritalin showed the most remarkable improvements in focus, as well as a significant decrease in hyperactive behavior.
Additionally, only the children who underwent neurofeedback training showed encouraging changes in patterns of brain activity associated with increased focus.
The behavioral and neurological improvements persisted in the children who underwent neurofeedback training even after medication was stopped. However, this wasn’t the case for children who took Ritalin but didn’t participate in neurofeedback treatment. This study suggests that neurofeedback is a promising treatment for ADHD, and it also implies that the training can have long-lasting effects even after ending treatment.5
Many people deal with anxiety — 25% percent of adults and 20% of children.
A recent study was conducted to monitor brain function during a neurofeedback test to treat anxiety. In this study, 26 people with high anxiety levels underwent real-time brain scanning (fMRI) neurofeedback to evaluate brain connectivity during the process.
By providing real-time fMRI-guided treatment, people trained their brains to promote connectivity between their prefrontal cortex and their amygdala, leading to reduced anxiety during and after treatment.
This study demonstrated that enhanced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala leads to reduced anxiety, and the stronger the connection between these two areas, the stronger the reduction in anxiety.6
Because neurofeedback can help with emotional regulation and control, people with bipolar disorder can benefit from this type of therapy. Neurofeedback can give patients with bipolar disorder more stable moods and improved symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Neurofeedback is known to reduce the need for medication for many conditions, so people who want to stop taking medication may find success in this sort of treatment. Additionally, people with bipolar disorder often have coexisting mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD — two disorders that neurofeedback can also correct.