What is Neurofeedback?
“Biofeedback training” is a growing trend in healthcare, where people are hooked up to devices for measuring different aspects of bodily functions in order to see how these processes are taking place in real-time. People can then be trained to learn to control the way these processes are carried out.
“Neurofeedback” is a specific form of biofeedback training, which is based on the idea that people can consciously alter the way their brains function by using training programs to help them to visualize and learn to change the patterns of electrical activity taking place in their brain.
Benefits of Neurofeedback Therapy
1) Cognitive Function
Some researchers have proposed that neurofeedback may help to enhance neuroplasticity (the capacity of the brain to change and adapt). This, in turn, could possibly help to slow or reverse the natural declines in cognitive function that occur over aging.
For example, one early study reported that neurofeedback training improved cognitive processing speed and executive function in elderly subjects.
Other studies have reported that certain specific types of neurofeedback training, such as decreasing sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) beta rhythms, may help improve reaction time.
According to another preliminary study, subjects who were able to learn to boost their alpha brain wave activity via neurofeedback were reported to perform better at a visual-spatial reasoning task (mental object rotation).
2) Attention and Working Memory
Problems with working memory are often associated with issues with attention and short-term memory.
According to some preliminary findings, healthy individuals have reported to improve their working memory and extend their attention spans by increasing certain types of brain wave activity (in this case, alpha-, theta-, and SMR waves).
Another study in 32 human subjects reported that EEG-based neurofeedback improved attention and working memory in older patients, while younger subjects improved their concentration and attention (executive functioning). This led some researchers to suggest that neurofeedback may be an effective way to prevent age-related cognitive impairment – although more research will be needed to find out for sure.
In one other study, fMRI-based neurofeedback training (a type of MRI that can be used to monitor brain responses in real-time) was used to help 18 healthy adults learn to control their blood oxygen level-dependent signals, and was reported to lead to improved working memory abilities.
Some researchers are investigating whether neurofeedback could improve problems with attention and working memory.
3) Learning & Memory
Some early evidence suggests that EEG-based neurofeedback training may have potential to enhance the acquisition and organizations of new memories (both short- and long-term memory).
According to one preliminary study in 50 healthy adults, using an EEG-based neurofeedback program to boost alpha wave strength was reportedly associated with increases in the accuracy of multiple types of memory (episodic, working, short-term). The stronger the boost in alpha waves, the more memory enhancement each subject showed.
In another study, EEG-based neurofeedback training (targeting SMR and upper alpha waves) was reported to improve verbal memory, short-term visual memory, and working memory in 70% of the subjects (including 17 stroke patients and 40 healthy control subjects). This neurofeedback training was reported to be more effective than traditional cognitive training, and the study’s authors proposed that neurofeedback could potentially benefit patients suffering from brain damage (such as the stroke patients in their study).
Finally, another study in 27 healthy human subjects reported that EEG-based neurofeedback improved memory consolidation during sleep.
In a few small clinical studies, neurofeedback affected the acquisition and organization of new memories.
4) Skills Training
In a few preliminary studies, EEG-based neurofeedback was used to promote brain waves associated with attention and relaxation, which was reported to improve the performance of professional musicians when performing in stressful conditions. A follow-up study used alpha/theta EEG neurofeedback training to try to enhance the creativity and technical skill of novice musicians. According to this study, SMR neurofeedback may have noticeably enhanced their technical skills.
Neurofeedback training has also been reported to improve musical performance in 33 school children, who displayed greater creativity and reported higher well-being after being trained to increase their alpha and theta wave activity. This preliminary finding may suggest that neurofeedback could be helpful as a learning tool in the classroom.
Another preliminary study reported that EEG neurofeedback also helped actors learn faster, as well as improved their creativity, the quality of their performance, and boosted their confidence.
There is also some preliminary evidence that athletic performance could also potentially be enhanced by neurofeedback training. For example, two early studies using EEG-based neurofeedback training reported that golfing accuracy was improved in 6 subjects, and that dance performance was improved in 24 professional dancers. Another study also reported improved reaction time and visual-spatial abilities in 41 healthy subjects – skills that are likely quite relevant for athletic performance.
Finally, neurofeedback training (of alpha-, theta, and SMR waves) was reported to improve surgical technique in 28 medical surgery trainees.
However, these studies all generally have small sample sizes, and many of them used different neurofeedback training protocols – so a lot more research will still be needed to find out exactly what training programs are effective, and why.
Some studies have found that neurofeedback enhanced the performance of musicians, athletes, and surgeons, but all such studies were too small and varied to draw many conclusions.
According to a few early studies, patients who received neurofeedback training to enhance their alpha wave activity reported reductions in anxiety and other negative emotions.
In one study, neurofeedback training aimed at boosting alpha and theta brain waves was reported to enhance mood and boost confidence in a group of medical students.
Similarly, a few studies reported that alpha and theta brain wave neurofeedback training lowered performance anxiety and stress in musicians, dancers, and singers.
Research suggests that neurofeedback training could also be used to alter and control emotional processes.
According to a handful of preliminary studies, neurofeedback targeting alpha brain waves in the frontal cortex has shown some early promise in potentially treating depression by boosting mood and reducing anxiety.
In one interesting study, EEG-based neurofeedback training reduced depression symptoms – even when this training was “disguised” by having participants use their own brain activity to control music (rather than being shown their own brain waves per se).
Hemodynamic (HEG) neurofeedback – i.e. training to control blood flow in specific brain regions – has also been studied as a potential treatment for depression. Some researchers speculate that this may work by enhancing responses to positive memories in the limbic system, a key brain network involved in the processing and regulation of emotions.
7) Sleep Quality
According to one early study in 38 healthy human participants, using neurofeedback training to increase a type of brain wave called the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) has been reported to help people fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality.
Neurofeedback has also been reported to improve sleep quality in 29 adult insomniacs. In one study, 18 sessions of remote neurofeedback (administered over the internet) was reported to decrease both the time needed to fall asleep as well as increase total sleep time.
Similarly, according to a few studies, a total of 64 insomnia patients reported experiencing improvements in sleep quality – but only if the appropriate feedback therapy was used. A follow-up study also reported that these benefits lasted for up to 9 months. Patients who were tense and anxious only reported benefits from theta feedback, while more “relaxed” patients only reported benefitting from SMR feedback.
Some early studies have looked at the potential for neurofeedback training to improve or better-manage the common symptoms of ADHD.
For example, one study in 20 children with ADHD who had received fMRI neurofeedback treatment reported increased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in selective attention.
In another study of 38 children with ADHD, 30 sessions of neurofeedback training (SCP) was reported to improve cognitive function and attention. Additionally, these effects were still seen up to 6 months after the initial treatment. This finding was confirmed by another follow-up study in 23 children with ADHD.
According to the authors of one other study, neurofeedback training may be similar in effectiveness as certain common ADHD medications. In this study, 20 sessions of neurofeedback training were reported to produce improvements in attention and concentration equal to methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin).
A follow-up study tested the effects of EEG neurofeedback combined with a 1-year program of Ritalin (average dose of 25 mg/3x a day), parent counseling, and academic support. All children received the program and 51 children also received neurofeedback.
Although all of the children reported improved symptoms, the neurofeedback group reported not needing to continue taking Ritalin to maintain the initial benefits from the program (100 children with ADHD, aged 6-19).
Evidence for treatment of certain conditions may be nuanced so we suggest you call us to understand what the best course of action is.
Here at Neurohealth Associates we specialize in Neurofeedback treatments. Neurofeedback may be helpful if you have unwanted mood swings, problems sleeping, anger management issues, motivation, or poor self-esteem. The easy, noninvasive treatment can painlessly improve your mental health condition and outlook on life.
Schedule a consultation with NeuroHealth today and find out how we can help you.
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