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Neurofeedback: How Does It Work?

Exploring how neurofeedback works to treat your injury, diagnosis, or symptom

One of my patients who had a stroke was coming in for her neurofeedback session. She said that her husband didn’t understand how neurofeedback was helping her with the wide variety of symptoms she has from motor coordination, stability, anger management, and ability to focus and concentrate. She tried to explain how it was working, and that she can clearly see the improvement over her various sessions. I asked her if she would like her husband to come in for a session and I would explain it. She said he'd rather not and would prefer to read about it. I did mention the various books that explain neurofeedback and she said he won’t read them. I asked her if he reads blogs, and she said yes.

Hearing her dilemma I decided to devote this post to explaining how neurofeedback works to treat the cause and symptoms of a Stroke/Aneurysm, as in her situation. Also, I aim to address how it works for other brain injuries, such as concussion, ADHD, Autism, anxiety, memory problems, sleep problems and PTSD.

There are two excellent videos that help explain what neurofeedback is and how it works. One was done by Dr. Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D. BCIAC from EEGInfo titled What is Neurofeedback and the other is from Martin Brink, BCIA from Australia titled What is Neurotherapy.

In both videos, the emphasis is on the brain communicating with itself and the outside world. If you think about how you taught your child or grandchild to speak, first you would present an object, such as an apple. Then you would describe the color, texture, and in this situation, the taste. The fact is that all children are born with billions of neural connections and have the ability to speak and read every language in the world. However, if they are not exposed to that language they lose those neural connections. It is the outside world interfacing with the inner world of neural connections that form specific hubs or pathways. Therefore, a child knowing by sight that a red apple may be sweet while a yellow lemon is sour is based on the formation of specific hubs for that specific object. Along with this hub are other hubs of identification by smell, taste, touch and the situations they experience with the apple, such as a joyful moment with grandma. Then, the child through additional hubs learns to express through language (speech).

So the outer world interfaces or gives feedback to our inner neural world to help present objects, feelings, thoughts, moods, sensations. One set of hubs is known as the “mirror neurons.” They allow us to feel and sense what we see. This set of neural hubs was once called the monkey see-monkey do neurons, because it helps us to mimic our outer world and feel empathy.

If all the neural connections/hubs are working together harmoniously, we refer to the brain as being regulated. This is where Martin Brink’s video mentions everyone singing in harmony. There is a book out by Jim Robbins titled A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback that does a good job of explaining the process.

However, a person can be born with an area or areas of the brain that are not working or are having problems, or later due to injury to the brain they can have specific areas of dysfunction or areas, or the brain’s neural connections become dysregualted. Neurofeedback works to get the brain regulated.

I did my doctoral dissertation on children with autism and present my research at the 2nd International Conference on Autism. The focus of my dissertation was on verbal and nonverbal, communicative and noncommunicative behavior in a social situation in groups of autistic children. In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that there are one to three locations where children born with Autism differ. One of the areas is the reduction of mirror neurons. This is also the case with individuals who have had a stroke/aneurysm or have had brain surgery, where a specific area is not working or usually causes problems with the hubs and neural dysregulation.

In my situation, I had an aneurysm in the left frontal lobe and then had brain surgery there. Now, I have a hole in my brain. Yet, the brain wants to repair itself, this is called neuroplasticity. There is an excellent book out on this subject by Dr. Norman Doidge, M.D., The Brain that Changes Itself.

The brain’s ability to change, heal and become regulated again is extremely effective in terms of concussion, memory problems, sleep problems, ADHD and PTSD, where the cause is often related to dysregulation of a system of hubs or neural connections and dysregulation of various electrical frequency, rather than injury to a specific location or hub.

How does neurofeedback work to help you regain your life? First, neurofeedback can assess the functioning of your brain, which is different from an MRI or CT scan that look at the structure. There are various neurofeedback assessments, such as

QEEG (Quanatitive EEG), Loretta, LENS maps and Avatar 3-dimensional maps, that can locate the specific location, neural hub, and electrical frequency that is not functioning properly. This information ought to be shared with you. From this assessment, the method, or methods of treatment are specifically designed to help the brain repair itself.

Some clinicians are only trained in one method, while many are trained in using more than one method of neurofeedback. This is where it is extremely important to ask how many patients have they seen with your specific issues and present problems. Do they have a consultant they can discuss your symptoms with, if needed? As mentioned in my previous blog posts, along with the various methods and techniques, we have an integrative practice including a psychiatrist, homeopathic practitioner and nutrition educator that if needed, work together with you to help your brain get regulated.

Neurofeedback works by providing feedback to the brain so it can heal itself through neuroplasticity. This is done through sound, lights, computer games and even sometimes vibrating cushions or teddy bears. Neurofeedback is similar to a vocal coach listening to you sing and recording it, or giving you suggestions or positive feedback, also called operant conditioning. There are some methods of neurofeedback that produce the needed frequency to heal your brain. This is the case with the LENS method, the pEMF of Neurofield, and the CES machine (Cranial Electrical Stimulation). Or through monitoring devices, such as Emwave that help you to learn to regulate your involuntary nervous system that controls your heart rate. This method is call Heart Rate Variability (HRV). In the various methods that use zScore training, this is similar to comparing your brain with other people of the same gender and age, thus, allowing your brain to function similar to other people of your gender and age.

In my previous blog post I mentioned that neurofeedback is similar to your car hitting a pot hole, and your tires are now out of alignment. When you took your car for an inspection, they also saw that the muffler had a hole in it and needed replacing. Neurofeedback can assess the cause and rather than replace, it helps your brain heal itself, similar to how physical therapy helps your body repair itself, even if you broke a limb. The main difference is that if you have lost a limb, you would probably need a prosthesic.

As mentioned, I have a hole in my brain, yet with neurofeedback and through neuroplasticity my brain is able to make new pathways and hubs so I can think, feel and remember as I previously did, just a bit slower, since the hub is no longer at the previous location.

How does neurofeedback work? It gives needed feedback in the method that the brain understands through the external/internal interface to help the brain heal and regulate itself through neuroplasticity.

In the upcoming blog posts, I will go into specific detail of how each of the various methods works individually, and then how I used as many as five neurofeedback methods at the same time along with my integrative team. Remember... There is a Way!®

Copyright © 2014 Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.

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