Neurofeedback, also known as EEG (electroencephalogram) biofeedback, is a therapeutic intervention that provides immediate feedback from a computer-based program that assesses a client’s brainwave activity. The program uses auditory or visual signals to help patients recognize their thought patterns and try to modify them. Through this process, clients can learn to regulate and improve their brain function and hopefully alleviate symptoms of various neurological disorders and mental health conditions.
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback. Biofeedback refers to obtaining information and metrics about physiological functions—such as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature—to understand and change existing bodily processes. Neurofeedback does the same but specifically for brain activity.
However, there is reason to be skeptical of neurofeedback. Research has shown that the procedure is often no more effective than a placebo procedure; people may benefit from neurofeedback but those benefits could be attributed to the placebo effect. The procedure is safe and non-invasive, but given that it can also be expensive, time-consuming, and less effective than proven treatments, patients should carefully consider their options.
When It's Used
Neurofeedback can help treat many different conditions, including:
- Seizure conditions
- Brain injury
- Insomnia and sleep problems
- Age-related cognitive loss
- Behavior disorders
- Developmental delays
Neurofeedback may also be used as an adjunct intervention with other forms of therapy.
Devices in the form of headsets or earbuds can monitor electrical activity in the brain that people can then access and analyze on their phone or computer. For example, one application of these devices is to detect when drivers become drowsy, and research suggests that several consumer devices can successfully identify drowsiness. Another is for individual consumers to observe their brain activity during meditation and improve their practice.
What to Expect
Neurofeedback therapy consists of regular 30- or 60-minute sessions. Some people need fewer sessions, while others require more.
When the client arrives, they’ll be seated and the provider will attach electrodes to their scalp, often by fitting with them with a cap or band.
The electrodes will transmit their brain activity to a computer program as they engage in the process. They may watch graphics on a computer screen or listen to music. The provider will be monitoring their brainwaves on the screen.
The computer program will then begin directing the client’s brainwave activity toward more desirable and controlled patterns through visual and auditory cues. They’ll get immediate feedback from the program when their brainwave patterns improve to reinforce those changes.
Between sessions, clients may be able to notice changes in mood, stress, sleep patterns, or mental clarity.
Note that neurofeedback takes place in an office or clinic. The person remains conscious and alert throughout the session, there is no sedation or medication involved, and they can return to their daily routine after the visit.
How It Works
Neurofeedback is not considered a cure, but rather a method of managing or regulating the workings of the brain so it functions in a healthier manner. This is achieved by repeated training sessions using a computerized neurofeedback program that teaches the central nervous system to reorganize and regulate brainwave frequencies.
The idea is that patients can see their brain waves depicted in front of them. If they can learn to shift their thoughts to produce a desired pattern of activity, they can solve the harmful effects associated with the original pattern of activity.
For example, some research suggests that EEG may help reduce symptoms of ADHD in children. Brain activity among those with ADHD is sometimes associated with an increased power of theta waves, slower brain waves, and a decreased power of beta waves, faster brain waves. EEG may then be used to help children learn to shift the ratio of these two types of brain waves.
What to Look for When Seeking Neurofeedback Treatment
Many people are referred to neurofeedback training in the treatment of an ongoing condition or in combination with other modalities of therapy. If you are seeking a therapist with this speciality, be sure to ask about how they perform neurofeedback and in what setting, or whether they use devices that a person can use to continue the process on their own.
You can also look for a practitioner who is certified in neurofeedback: The Biofeedback Certification International Alliance offers a neurofeedback certificate to those who have completed relevant education and training.
In addition, with any therapist, it is important to ask the following:
- How they may help with your particular concerns
- If they have dealt with this type of problem before
- What their process is like
- The treatment for timeline
Licensed mental health professionals who have been trained to use neurofeedback equipment and programs can provide neurofeedback services in their private practices and clinics. In addition to finding someone with the educational background and relevant experience, look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal issues, who displays an understanding of your particular case, and who can clearly explain the neurofeedback process, its potential benefits, and its limitations in a way you can understand.