Neurofeedback, also known as neurotherapy or neurobiofeedback, is a branch of biofeedback that measures brain activity in real time, which is directly observed by the patient, who then works to self-regulate that activity for specific results. Although some medical professionals don’t believe it has effective and lasting benefits, others swear by it. How does it work? What conditions does it help? And how can it help people working on their own recovery from addiction?
How Does Neurofeedback Work?
To participate in neurofeedback, the patient is hooked up to electronic sensors and monitoring devices (an EEG machine) to detect his or her neurological activities or brainwaves. Brainwaves are measured by height (amplitude), and there are four different kinds: Delta, Theta, Alpha, and Beta. A lack of correct balance among these waves can be evidence of a problem. Different waves should get higher during certain activities as different parts of the brain are activated. For example, Beta waves are active during everyday tasks such as working and driving. On the other hand, Alpha waves are most active when we relax. If the wrong types of waves are reacting during certain tasks, this can through the brain off balance. Since our brain controls everything, this lack of balance can result in difficulties paying attention, inappropriate emotional responses, and even physical health issues.
The goal of neurofeedback is self-regulation of these waves. Regulating the waves correctly can help the patient’s body return to normal functioning. To determine if the patient’s waves are off kilter, their brainwaves can be compared to the waves of other people of the same gender and in the same age group once measured. In a neurofeedback training session, this measurement is happening in real time. As the patient watches the screen in front of him or her, the software compares their brainwaves to the norm, while her or she plays a video game or watches a movie. The game or movie works normally when the brainwaves are following the desired pattern, but when they leave that pattern, the movie slows or disappears. The game or movie returns when the correct brainwave pattern returns, and with repetition, the brainwaves go more often into the desired pattern until it is there more often or most of the time.
People drawn to neurofeedback treatment like it because it is drug free and is entirely non-invasive. The electronic sensors are all attached to the outside of one’s head, and no incisions are necessary. There are no negative side effects. People generally need around thirty sessions for optimal results but some need fewer sessions and some need more. Once their sessions are complete, the results are permanent; the brain has built new patterns, and those patterns will last.
Who Uses Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is helpful for a wide variety of conditions. It can be applicable to any condition or problem that is the result of brainwaves functioning incorrectly. Neurofeedback has been used to treat depression, insomnia, autism, chronic pain, head injuries, learning difficulties, ADHD, PTSD, Parkinson’s Disease, addiction, and more. People who have anxiety report that things that used to make them anxious no longer do after treatment. Bipolar patients find it to be helpful to stabilize their moods. People who experience migraine headaches often report that it reduces the frequency, intensity, and duration of their episodes. People suffering from seizures and epilepsy find that neurofeedback training can reduce the number of seizures they experience. And some expert neuropsychologists who work with stroke victims even say that neurofeedback is one of the best possible interventions, and one of few treatments that can make a big difference in their patients.
Neurofeedback isn’t a miracle or a cure-all, though. It simply helps the patient to regulate his or her brainwaves, and therefore gives them a chance to work on their issues from a state of balance. This reset can be very helpful for people on their recovery journey from any physical, mental, or emotional problem they are experiencing.
How Can Neurofeedback Aid in Addiction Recovery?
Like many health issues people experience, addiction is the result of and also causes a disruption of the brainwave activity. Our brains are a complex highway of circuits that all work together to regulate our thoughts and our body’s actions. When drugs or alcohol are introduced into this highway system, messages and impulses get lost in the maze. In particular, these intoxicants affect the brain’s reward system; when dopamine is released unnaturally, we feel pleasure, and the brain wants more of the drug, but the brain reduces the amount of dopamine it is producing independently. Over time, this process can result in a user being unable to truly experience the drug-free pleasure that existed before he or she began using. This is better known as tolerance.
Clearly, in this situation, the brain needs a reset. Through neurofeedback, a recovering addict can active work to re-regulate his or her brainwaves. For example, research shows that alcoholics have low Alpha and Theta brainwave activity; this deficiency exists before they become alcoholics, but the alcohol makes it worse. Through neurofeedback, the alcoholic can learn safe, natural techniques to increase the amplitude of these types of waves, resulting in a better functioning brain.
Once he or she has regulated the brainwaves, then the real work on addiction recovery can move forward more smoothly. The individual’s mind and body will now be more receptive to therapy and wlll have a better understanding of his or her own brain. As research continues to indicate that addiction is a disease or disorder of the brain, the applications of neurofeedback in addiction treatment continue to grow. More research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of neurofeedback in addiction treatment, but as more people try it, we will know more about the scope of its successes.
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