In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s researchers discovered that it is possible to retrain brainwave patterns. Early work began with training that increased alpha waves to enhance relaxation and training both animals and humans with uncontrolled epilepsy. The results of these research efforts were positive, and the field of neurotherapy was born. It fell out of favor for a while because by virtue of the interaction between a client and a therapist during neurofeedback training it is almost impossible to meet the strictest requirements demanded by the scientific method. However, practitioners have continued using neurotherapy since that time and obtained impressive results. Gradually, more and more studies are taking place, most of which have positive results and many that clearly demonstrate the efficacy of neurofeedback.
Neurotherapy is essentially EEG biofeedback for the brain. Similar to other forms of biofeedback, neurotherapy uses monitoring devices to provide in the moment information to an individual about his or her physiological functioning, in this case brainwave patterns. Unlike other forms of biofeedback, neurotherapy focuses on aspects of the central nervous system and the brain, and is rooted in both neuroscience and data-based clinical practice. Neurotherapy is aligned with the American Psychological Association’s definition of an evidence-based intervention which refers to “…the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preference.” Some studies have demonstrated actual physiological changes in the brain and many have shown that changes persist long after treatment has ended. These findings contribute to the growing reputation of neurofeedback and to its increasingly common use with certain populations like ADHD, traumatic brain injury, and sleep disorders. Other common uses are peak performance with athletes, performers, and executives, improving cognitive skills in the elderly, and treating both anxiety and depression.
Here’s how it works. Brainwaves occur with various frequencies, some fast and some slow. The names for the brainwaves are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma.
They are measured in cycles per second or hertz (Hz). Each brainwave is associated with different states of mental activity. For example, delta brainwaves are associated with sleep, theta brainwaves are related to a rather spacey state of mind that is not very intellectually efficient. Alpha brainwaves are related to a relaxed mental state that is not fully engaged with external events. There are several ranges of beta brainwaves and these represent an outward focus with mental alertness. Essentially, different levels of awareness are related to the brain’s dominant brainwave. People develop physiological habits in a manner similar to that of developing behavioral habits.
Brainwave patterns are no exception and brainwaves that are out of sequence can result in levels of awareness that are not productive or consistent with the demands of the task at hand. These habits can be altered through neurofeedback. Neurotherapy utilizes an EEG to measure brainwave activity. Sensors are placed on the scalp and information regarding an individual’s current brainwave activity is relayed to the trainee and the therapist through a computer screen. The concept is that changes in the feedback signal represent changes in the person’s brain activity. The computer provides “rewards” for meeting the designated criteria during the training. The brain responds unconsciously to the feedback and individuals can learn to recognize the new brain state. Although trainees are often unaware of the exact method they use to change their brainwaves to reach the threshold, people most often acquire a “felt sense” of these desired changes. Eventually, people can learn to access these mental states separately from the training sessions. Thus, people learn to regulate their own mental states outside of neurofeedback and are more able to adjust their focus on the demands of various events in their lives. This mental flexibility is the basis for the long-lasting changes found in many research studies.