Feb. 21, 2000 (San Francisco) -- It looks like a scene from a 1950s science
fiction flick: Patients with electrodes attached to their skulls sit deep in
concentration, focusing their minds to control the beeps and squiggly lines
produced by an electronic monitor.
Now these fantastic visions are unfolding with increasing frequency in real
medical clinics around the country; people with epilepsy, attention deficit
disorder, and other forms of serious mental illness are treating these ailments
by learning to control electrical patterns in their own brains. This therapy,
known as neurofeedback, is emerging as the hottest new twist on
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Though biofeedback was first developed by psychologists, its primary uses
have been for illnesses below the neck. Standard biofeedback teaches you first
to become conscious of normally unconscious functions such as pulse, digestion,
and body temperature, then teaches you to control them in response to sounds or
other cues from monitoring devices. These techniques have allowed patients to
lower their blood pressure, banish their headaches, and control their
incontinence without using drugs.
Now new insights into the biology of mental illness have made it possible to
treat them in a similar fashion.
Aerobics for the Brain
In neurofeedback (also known as neurotherapy), therapists attach electrodes
to patients' unshaved scalps. Through these electrodes, a device measures
electrical impulses in the brain, amplifies them, and then records them. These
impulses are divided into different types of brain waves.
For example, in order to concentrate on a task, parts of the brain must
produce more high-frequency beta waves. To relax, the brain must produce more
low-frequency theta waves
Using a program similar to a computer game (only without a joystick), people
learn to control the video display by achieving the mental state that produces
increases in the desired brain wave. Some practitioners call it "aerobics
for the brain."
In epilepsy, where once only medications and surgery could reduce seizures,
neurofeedback is showing results. A German study published in the April 1999
journal Clinical Neurophysiology found that two thirds of epilepsy
patients could reduce their seizure rate by learning to control very low
frequency brain waves in the cortex.
"In people with epilepsy, part of the brain has become unstable, and
occasionally it triggers the rest of the brain into seizure," explains
Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D., an Encino, Calif. physicist who trains biofeedback
therapists. Neurofeedback may help stabilize those circuits and reduce the
probability of seizures."
The use of neurofeedback for psychiatric problems depends on recent
understanding about these diseases. In the 1960s, when biofeedback was
developed as a therapy, schizophrenia and attention deficit were considered
mainly the result of emotional trauma or poor upbringing. Consequently,
biofeedback practitioners first focused on obviously physical problems. Now
scientists understand better the electrical and chemical components of mental
illness, creating opportunities for neurofeedback.