Neurofeedback is one of my favorite therapies, and I’ve seen it work wonders for an array of childhood neurological issues including ADHD, autistic-spectrum disorders, developmental delay and emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. I have also seen it successfully help insomnia, cognitive issues, anxiety and depression in adults. Neurofeedback is often an in-office therapy offered by doctors and psychologists, however how there are also home units that one can purchase to be able to maintain consistency of the treatments in a more time and cost-effective manner. I know for myself, when we first got our neurofeedback device in my practice and I did 20 sessions within the first couple of months, I saw a definite shift in myself. I feel like my level of emotional reactivity went way down and I just felt calmer overall. I have seen the benefits of neurofeedback in many people since then.
Neurofeedback works to stabilize the frequency patterns of the brain. These are the brainwave patterns that are measured when one has an electroencephalogram (EEG). In very simple terms, we have the structure of the brain, meaning the neurons with their axons and dendrites, and glial cells. Then we have the chemistry of the brain with various neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA, and now in the context of neurofeedback, we are talking about the electrical activity of the brain.
Brainwave patterns can be classified as alpha, beta, delta, gamma and theta. Each grouping encompasses a particular range of frequencies, or bandwidth, and each has its own characteristics.
For example, the alpha brainwave state is typically a relaxed state where one feels mindful and meditative. It is associated with increased creativity and a reduction in depression. Beta waves are heavily involved in cognitive functions; we are alert, focused, engaged and task-oriented. Delta and theta waves appear in the realm of sleep or very deep meditative states. Gamma waves are the fastest brainwaves and relate to the processing of information from different brain areas. They have been associated with higher states of conscious perception.
From these brief descriptions, we can see that one thing is clear. If you get stuck in one brainwave state or you have a dominance of a certain frequency range, it can impact your ability to function. If you have alpha dominance, you may feel dreamy or spacey, happily daydreaming all day. Without sufficient beta waves, focusing or concentrating on anything will be challenging. Without the delta and theta waves, good quality, deep, restorative sleep could be elusive.
Most psychoemotional and psychological symptoms have some association with imbalances in brainwave activity.
Neurofeedback works to bring erratic brainwave patterns back into balance by detecting where waves are out of balance via electrodes on the head that measure brain frequency activity, much like an EEG. What happens from there depends on the fundamental principle of biofeedback: when the body is presented with information about its own functioning and given the encouragement and opportunity to change, it will do so. (This can also be done via heart rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin response and other means, but I am just talking about neurofeedback here, which by definition is biofeedback for the brain.)
The computer reads the brainwave activity and assesses where the imbalances are. The person receiving the therapy is listening to music. When the brainwave patterns are healthy and balanced, the music plays uninterrupted. When the brainwave patterns are erratic, there are tiny breaks in the music that are barely perceptible to the ear (in the system I use, it sounds like very faint, brief scratches on an old record). The brain learns that it gets rewarded for operating within healthy frequency patterns and will start pulling itself into those patterns to continue the rewards.
Over a series of sessions, the brain is trained to operate in those healthy frequency patterns more frequently. I use the analogy of going to the gym and doing a bicep curl. If you go to the gym one time and lift a weight twenty times, your muscle will not be stronger by the next day (it might be sore though!). However, if you go to the gym two or three times a week for several weeks, your muscle will be stronger, even at rest. You have trained a stronger muscle, and you can use that muscle more effectively in your everyday life. So it is with neurofeedback and the brain. After a series of sessions, the brain will operate in its newly learned, healthier pattern all the time, not just during the session. That means great things for your everyday functioning.
There are many different neurofeedback devices but all work on the same basic premise. In my practice, I utilize the Zengar NeurOptimal® system, and I love it because instead of the practitioner setting the parameters of which bandwidths to upregulate and which to suppress, the machine assesses 16 different points and brings them all into balance simultaneously. Not only does this prevent any user error if the practitioner makes an incorrect assessment, but it also prevents any side effects or negative impacts. It is a gentle but deeply effective system. Zengar also makes a personal system that people can get for their homes, then the whole family can benefit!!
Given so many kids and adolescents are struggling with attention deficit disorders, autistic-spectrum disorders, developmental delays and emotional disorders, I hope that more are able to access neurofeedback as I think it has so much to offer. I think it has such a lot of offer adults too, in all of the same areas, as well as insomnia, and age-related cognitive decline.