Is Neurofeedback for You?

Proponents say neurofeedback promotes dramatic improvements in attention and self-regulation — but some experts are skeptical. Know the facts before plugging into this emerging therapy.

Neurofeedback: How It Works

NEUROFEEDBACK: HOW IT WORKS

Neurofeedback was developed in the 1960s and '70s, with American researchers leading the way. In 1968, M. Barry Sterman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that the training helped cats resist epileptic seizures. Dr. Sterman and others later claimed to have achieved similar benefits with humans.

The findings prompted a boomlet of interest, during which clinicians of varying degrees of respectability jumped into the field, making many unsupported claims about miracle cures, and tainting the treatment's reputation among academics. Meanwhile, researchers in Germany and the Netherlands continued to explore neurofeedback's potential benefits.

A major attraction of the technique is the hope that it can help patients avoid drugs, which can have side effects. Instead of taking drugs, patients practice routines (much like exercising a muscle).

Brain cells communicate with one another, in part, through a constant storm of electrical impulses. Their patterns show up on an electroencephalogram, or EEG, as brain waves with different frequencies. Neurofeedback practitioners say people have problems when their brain wave frequencies aren't suited for the task at hand, or when parts of the brain aren't communicating adequately with other parts. These issues, they say, can be represented on a "brain map," the initial EEG readings that serve as a guide for treatment. Subsequently, a clinician will help a patient learn to slow down or speed up those brain waves, through a process known as operant conditioning. The brain begins by generating fairly random patterns, while the computer software responds with encouragement whenever the activity meets the target.

Norman Doidge, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research at Columbia University, and the author of The Brain That Changes Itself, says he considers neurofeedback "a powerful stabilizer of the brain." Practitioners make even more enthusiastic claims. Robert Coben, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Massapequa Park, New York, says he has treated more than 1,000 autistic children over the past seven years and has conducted a clinical study, finding striking reductions in symptoms, as reported by parents.

Next: Brain Training and Autism

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