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Neurofeedback: Exercise for the Brain

An innovative computer-driven therapy called neurofeedback is providing new clues to the mind's role in sickness and health. Also known as brain-wave training or EEG biofeedback, the technique is being used as a safe, drug-free alternative for the treatment of epilepsy, stress, migraines, chronic pain, PMS, hyperactivity, and more. Older people are trying it to boost their memory. Even Olympic athletes at the peak of physical form are getting into the picture, adopting neurofeedback to improve focus and boost performance.

The brain as joystick
People undergoing the therapy appear to be playing an ordinary computer game--except you won't see them using their hands. Instead, the user is rewarded for producing desirable brain-wave patterns. Painless electronic sensors are placed on the earlobes and scalp. As the mind relaxes and focuses, the computer responds by sending Pac-Manlike characters racing across the screen or a bar graph shooting upward. When the mind drifts, nothing happens.

Scientists have long recognized that certain illnesses produce distinctive brain-wave patterns. Neurofeedback is thought to reset these patterns, so that the brain performs at optimal levels. It may take 20 to 40 sessions, lasting up to an hour and costing $50 and up, to effect benefits, which proponents say are permanent. With practice, one learns to reproduce the effects at home, without the doctor or biofeedback device.

A new twist on biofeedback
Neurofeedback is less tested and, not surprisingly, more controversial than older forms of biofeedback that measure such variables as skin temperature, muscle contractions, or heart rate. Numerous studies show that "traditional" biofeedback techniques can effectively relieve headaches, lower blood pressure, allay panic attacks, and treat incontinence. Early research on neurofeedback pointed to benefits in controlling epilepsy and treating the outbursts of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, but rigorous studies are lacking.

Jamie Deckoff-Jones, M.D., of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, laments the lack of rigorous studies on neurofeedback but reports that some of her patients have had remarkable success with it. She became interested in alternative therapies several years ago, as assistant director at a Stanford University trauma center, after biofeedback techniques proved helpful for lowering her own dangerously high blood pressure. She now uses neurofeedback to treat seizures, depression, hyperactivity, eating disorders, brain injuries, and other ailments. Her youngest patient is age 8; the oldest, 78. Dr. Deckoff-Jones likens it to calisthenics for the brain and finds that "for chronic conditions, the kind of conditions that conventional medicine does the worst with, it is in many ways more helpful than medication, with far fewer side effects."

Neurofeedback also appears to be very safe. It has been officially introduced into the Yonkers, New York, public schools to treat students with attention and behavioral problems. "We've seen less suspensions, less absenteeism, and improvements in self-esteem," reports Dr. Mary Jo Sabo, who is leading the effort. It's hard to believe that a video "game" could do all that. But, as many practitioners of neurofeedback say, they continue to be amazed at the results.

To find a neurofeedback practitioner:
Send a SASE to the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (303-420-2902; www.bcia.org), 10200 West 44th Avenue, Suite 310, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033. EEG Spectrum (www.eegspectrum.com/800-789-3456) also has a list of practitioners.

For more information
See our library entry on Biofeedback.

Date Posted: 11/30/2002

Date Published: 11/29/2002
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