Neurofeedback is a treatment option for many conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders (to name just a few) that is an alternative to medication. Instead, by placing computer-linked electrodes on specific areas of the scalp, therapists use Neurofeedback to train brainwaves to help people function optimally.
In Neurofeedback, therapists examine brain waves. The human brain produces electrical waves that occur as slow as one time per second, and as fast as thirty times per second (or more). Therapists look at the location, strength and frequency of these brain waves, as well as the relationships between these waves at different brain locations, in order to determine a treatment protocol.
Once the Neurofeedback therapist determines where and how to train which brainwaves, the client will be asked to sit in front of a computer screen and play a game using only the power of those brainwaves. If the game progresses, it means that the client is producing the kind and strength of brainwaves that the therapist wants to encourage. If the game stagnates, that is a cue for the client that they must adjust their brainwaves.
Brain waves are commonly grouped under four different headings: Delta waves, Theta waves, Alpha waves, and Beta waves. Delta waves are those which occur between 1 and 3 times per second, and are associated with total unconsciousness and deep, dreamless sleep. Theta waves, which occur between 4 and 7 times per second, are associated with the early stages of sleep, drowsiness, and the process of dreaming. Alpha waves occur 8-11 times per second, and are associated with peace, relaxation, meditation, and creativity. Lastly, Beta waves, which occur between 12 and 30 times per second, are associated with an increased ability to focus on external reality, but can also be associated to states of anxiety.
Dr. Joel Lubar, current Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, spearheaded early research on the use of Neurofeedback on children with ADHD. He discovered one pattern of brain waves in children with ADHD that suggested these children had an abundance of slow brain waves – namely, theta waves – compared to the faster beta waves. While some might think that an abundance of the slower theta waves might cause signs of drowsiness, Lubar came to the conclusion that some children with ADHD become hyperactive in an attempt to wake up and counteract the effects of slow brain waves.
In order to treat this type of ADHD patient, Neurofeedback therapists will compare the strength of beta waves with the strength of the theta waves. If the power of the theta waves – the slower waves associated with drowsiness – is more than two or three times stronger than those of the beta waves, the focus becomes reducing the influence of the theta waves or increasing the influence of beta waves to create an equilibrium.
By increasing the relative power of the beta waves, the nervous system will be aroused enough to pay sufficient attention to its environment, and will no longer need to compensate for the overabundance of theta waves with hyperactivity.
The medication Ritalin addresses ADHD in a very similar way to the Neurofeedback approach. It counters the impact of an especially strong theta wave to create balance in the nervous system. However, there is no learning with Ritalin. After 4 to 12 hours, when it is no longer present in the body, the person’s brain waves return to baseline. With Neurofeedback, however, the person learns to have a more productive configuration of brain waves and can often do without any medication.
Neurofeedback is a viable non-medicine treatment option that works directly with the brain. Especially when combined with social skills groups or individualized therapy, neurofeedback is a powerful treatment tool.