What Neurofeedback Treats
I am interested in neurofeedback because I believe it can give clinicians a tool for helping their clients shift some of the more basic ways our brains process information. Many of the brain responses we get that we want to change are automatic. Emotional responses and physical reflexes kick in faster than our cognitive "thinking brain" can react. We unconsciously eat or distract ourselves or mind wander, based on information that our conscious brain rarely has access to. Even when we know the reason, the conscious part of us has few tools for changing those responses.
Working on a millisecond timeframe, brainwave feedback can potentially address the automatic function of the attention systems, the emotional alerting systems, the satiety systems and so on, in a much more direct way than traditional psychotherapy. The challenge is that these systems are complex and interwoven. Having a scalpel doesn't help you if you don't know where to operate.
Neurofeedback has clearly helped individuals with problems in attention, anxiety, learning, mood, addictions, seizures, headaches, and other brain issues. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say which individuals will most likely benefit as the research literature on neurofeedback treatment is limited. It is further complicated by the many different methods of treatment. Still, it is good to look at the published data:
- Several well designed studies show that neurofeedback is helpful in treating Attention Deficit Disorder. The meta-analysis by Arns in 2009 suggests the size of the effect is similar to use of medication methylphenidate in treating attention, although the effect of medication on hyperactivity was greater. Most of the studies are of theta/beta training or slow cortical potential training.
- Several studies suggest neurofeedback can be helpful in treatment of autism. The sample size of these studies tends to be low, and some studies show improvement in certain symptoms while other symptoms remain unchanged or even worsen. Types of training include mu training, theta down training, and coherence down training.
- A study by Scott et. al. (2005) showed neurofeedback being helpful in polysubstance abuse, increasing the length of abstinence and staying with the treatment program. A combination of SMR and alpha/theta training was used.
- A study by Egner and Gruzelier (2003) showed improvement in musical creativity for treatment using alpha/theta, outperforming SMR training as well as Alexander technique.
Many other individual studies are in the literature addressing issues of depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, enuresis, etc. I will likely expand the above list with time as more confirmatory research is done.