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A New Consciousness

Biofeedback trains your brain to treat diseases.

WebMD Feature

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 biofeedback.

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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."

New Understanding

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.

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