A recent breakthrough in neuroscience could provide long-awaited new treatments for psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairments. The ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group in Kyoto, Japan has discovered that functional connectivity in the brain can be changed in both directions using fMRI neurofeedback training. Manipulating these brain networks through learning assistive-methods alters cognitive function and performance. These findings were published August 7 in Cerebral Cortex.
This study is a follow up based on a state-of-the-art method that Mitsuo Kawato and his team at ATR developed in 2015 to change the neural connections in the brain using what they call "functional connectivity neurofeedback training." This technique uses real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the functional connectivity between two specific brain regions as study participants perform a simple motor-imagery task. Connectivity neurofeedback training uses the functional connectivity between brain regions to modulate neural connectivity.
In the abstract of their latest study, the authors describe their research methods: "We selected the connectivity between the left primary motor cortex and the left lateral parietal cortex as the target. Subjects were divided into 2 groups, in which only the direction of change (an increase or a decrease in correlation) in the experimentally manipulated connectivity differed between the groups. As a result, subjects successfully induced the expected connectivity changes in either of the 2 directions."
Contrary to popular belief, disengaging or decreasing functional connectivity between brain regions is equally (if not more) important than simply strengthening neural networks. Pruning the connectivity between brain regions is called neural Darwinism and is the key to streamlining any type of learning and memory. In a “use it or lose it” way, neural engrams that fire together generally wire together.
From a metaphorical standpoint, one could view the neural networks your mind tends to travel like a path through the woods. Long before neuroscientists knew about fMRI-connectivity training, Henry David Thoreau unwittingly made a somewhat prophetic analogy of how neuroplasticity can reshape your mindset or keep you stuck in a rut. In Walden, Thoreau writes: “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
Based on the assumption that mindset is never fixed, one could speculate that shifting your explanatory style has the power to trigger increases or decreases in functional connectivity between brain regions. Decades ago, I used this hypothesis to fine-tune my cerebral-cerebellar connections during ultra-endurance athletic training and competition. Because my father, Richard Bergland, was a neuroscientist and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking), he explained the 1949 principles of Hebbian Theory and synaptic plasticity to me when I was a fledgling triathlete in the late 20th-century. At the time, it was impossible to test functional connectivity neurofeedback using fMRI, so I made myself a human lab rat. For the record: I credit my ability to accomplish epic athletic feats—such as breaking a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours—to a system of functional connectivity neurofeedback training I devised through trial and error to increase or decrease the frequency of certain thought patterns using neural plasticity.
As an athlete, I used my knowledge of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity to optimize my mindset, state of arousal, emotional valence, and sports performance. Later, I turned these lessons into neuroscience-based actionable advice that others could use in The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (St. Martin's Press). On pp. 72-73, Christopher Bergland writes:
“Strengthening the neural networks associated with an optimistic state makes the brain reshape itself to be more likely to facilitate the presence of positive emotions. The secret to staying positive is learning to guide and sift your thoughts. The key to doing this is to create two bins: Positive and negative or good and bad. Every thought that you allow to enter your consciousness is labeled and put in an agreeable or a disagreeable bin depending on how it makes you feel.
Everyone knows the feeling when a negative thought takes hold and gets into a loop in your brain. As we will explore in more detail, this loop of thought is actually synchronized firing and locking together of specific neurons in your brain. You need to avoid engaging that frequency of thought by not locking into it. Let it slip from your mind. The easiest way to do this is either to redirect the inner dialogue in your head or just let it go.
Inside the athletic process you are going to be sifting thoughts based on this rapid-fire gut decision either to hold it or to make it dissolve away. Guiding thoughts is much like swinging from vine to vine in the jungle. When I do Ironman races, I swing from positive thought to positive thought. I scan the horizon for any potential thought or vision bombarding me and attach only to things that hum of positive emotions and lock onto that thought. When that stops humming, I look for something else to latch on to. This neuronal choir is a group of neurons chanting in unison above the din of the crowd and could be seen on brain imaging technologies as a specific tapestry of neurons.
If a negative thought enters my mind, I make it very slippery. I imagine covering the neurons in Teflon and chicken fat. Happy thoughts are covered in Velcro, magnets and Super Glue. They stick to my brain. When you see a positive thought on the horizon or entering consciousness, allow it to stick and know that you are holding an electrochemical neural network together. Remember that the longer you hold on to a negative thought you are reinforcing a habit and strengthening a neural network. When bad thoughts creep in, zap them with your mental laser guns or just let the thought roll like water off a duck’s back with a deep exhalation.”
When I wrote the above passage 10 years ago, most of the visualizations were the result of road tested methods of connectivity neurofeedback training I’d developed through hours of regimented endurance training and using my imagination. Basically, when my energy and speed increased, I consciously made the neural networks and mindset linked to that type of performance more robust. Conversely, I would decrease any functional connectivity that resulted in slower running, biking, and swimming speeds. It’s nice to have cutting-edge research on neurofeedback training reaffirm that it is commonly possible to change functional connectivity in both directions.
In their August 2017 study, Kawato and colleagues found that participants in both the “increased functional connectivity” group and the “decreased functional connectivity” group learned to control connectivity in a trial-and-error manner through fMRI-based neurofeedback training. As the ATR authors conclude:
“The functional connectivity in each group indeed changed in the aimed direction during the training. Furthermore, we identified significant change in some cognitive performances between the groups. These findings indicate that connectivity neurofeedback can induce the aimed direction of change in functional connectivity as well as induce a differential change in cognitive performance. This indicates that using connectivity neurofeedback is a promising approach to therapeutic intervention for psychiatric disorders and to improve cognitive function.”
Hopefully, the combination of anecdotal and empirical evidence presented herein offers some clues for how to incorporate aspects of connectivity neurofeedback training into your daily life without necessarily having access to an fMRI. Stay tuned for future research on this topic and clinical ways that functional connectivity neurofeedback training can be utilized to address psychiatric disorders and improve cognitive performance.
Yamashita, A., Hayasaka, S., Kawato, M. & Imamizu, H. "Connectivity neurofeedback training can differentially change functional connectivity and cognitive performance." Cerebral Cortex. (2017) DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhx177
Megumi, Fukuda, Ayumu Yamashita, Mitsuo Kawato, and Hiroshi Imamizu. "Functional MRI neurofeedback training on connectivity between two regions induces long-lasting changes in intrinsic functional network." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. (2015). DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00160