Neurofeedback can give those suffering from mental health disorders control over their own brain act

Your psychology professor might object if, in your last paper, you compared the brain to a muscle, but recent research shows the brain can be trained and molded just like one.

Through an innovative, drug-free treatment called neurofeedback, patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and other types of emotional and behavioral problems can now acquire the power to change their brain activity patterns at will.

“Through repeated training in the form of monitored, age-appropriate videos or video games, patients improve their ability to alter their brain activity,” Laurence Hirshberg, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, told the Daily. “In about 80 percent of the cases, this is followed by improved mood and motivation.”

Neurofeedback patients sit in a chair and face a computer that is attached to their head via electrodes. Software detects brain activity and identifies the patient’s brainwaves as either desirable — when the brain is focused — or undesirable — when it is not.

Desirable brain activity is rewarded with pleasant video images; misbehaving brains conjure bleak and disagreeable ones. The procedure, over time, trains the brain’s mood centers to associate certain brain patterns with positive or negative images, eventually allowing patients to take ownership over their brain activity. Neurofeedback can be used to treat many disorders, including ADHD, depression, autism and anxiety.

Although neurofeedback is popular among researchers and recommended by more than 7,500 mental health professionals in the United States, it is still a relatively unknown practice, according to Hirshberg, one of the leading neurofeedback researchers and practitioners.

This fall, Hirshberg, in collaboration with Fred Rothbaum, a professor of child development at Tufts, and Matthew Nock, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, has begun to study neurofeedback as a treatment for depression in adolescents. Hirshberg also currently practices neurofeedback at the NeuroDevelopment Center in Cambridge, Mass., where he offers free treatment for individuals participating in his research.

Positive outcomes of the treatment demonstrate that neurofeedback may be able to be used in conjunction with other medications and eventually lead to the reduction and possible elimination of the need for medication, Hirshberg said.

Gina Kuperberg, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts, said, however, that while neurofeedback may be slowly gaining popularity as an alternative to drugs, there is no treatment for depression that works on its own. An effective treatment, she said, would require a multidisciplinary approach that involves psychopharmacological management, psychological measures and social interventions.

“Neurofeedback may well be helpful — although it sounds like this approach is still under investigation — but it is important not to use it in isolation of other approaches,” Kuperberg said.

According to the NeuroDevelopment Center, neurofeedback patients see results of their treatment quickly — as quickly as after a few sessions — and rarely experience negative side effects.

Christopher Willard, a staff psychologist at Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, said that while he cannot speak to the effectiveness of neurofeedback for depression victims, he sees it as a promising treatment for ADHD. Neurofeedback is particularly appealing to patients, he said, because they are given a chance to take ownership of their bodies and their medical conditions.

“I know people find it easy and fun to use,” he said, “and I think it helps to have direct and immediate visual feedback about what is happening and working in the mind and body.”

Because patients play a large role in their own recoveries, in addition to other reasons, Hirshberg finds neurofeedback an exciting avenue of alternative treatment.

“Adding neurofeedback training to the pantheon of established methods of treatment may prove to be very effective,” Hirshberg said.

People of all ages with depression and other disorders can benefit from neurofeedback without necessarily needing to take other medications, Hirshberg said, citing the story of a Tufts student suffering from anxiety whose life was improved by the treatment.

“As a high school sophomore with anxiety and depression, Stacy could not stop worrying about her tests and grades and studied obsessively, although she was already a terrific student and athlete. Her anxiety became so severe that she was placed on anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. Even with both medications, she experienced a moderate level of depression and anxiety,” he said.

“That was when she was introduced to the neurofeedback training,” he said. “By 20 sessions, she was no longer taking the anti-anxiety medication and had reduced her anti-depressant dose by half. … Stacy continued to train for several additional months and was able to stop taking the anti-depressant, as well.”

Still, the treatment has been very limited thus far, and prescribing it to young victims of depression is nowhere near common practice.

“Most of the cases of neurofeedback to date involve children with ADHD. So using neurofeedback to treat depression in adolescents, or adults, is a relatively recent development,” Hirshberg said. “Public reaction has been very positive, however, when it is accompanied by an accurate description of what the treatment entails.”