It is widely known that we are able to train our bodies to accomplish tasks. We can target strength training to improve specific muscle groups; we can teach our fingers to type or play instruments; we can train our voices to sing or project to an audience. With focused training and practice, we can even control our brains.
Contrary to what we learned in school, it is possible to control some of the involuntary things our bodies do. We can be taught to control our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and brain activity. Using a treatment called biofeedback, an electronic device used to monitor the body, people can learn to override their autonomic nervous system and take control of functions that are usually involuntary responses to external stimuli. By attaching electrodes which translate and transmit physiological information from our bodies and brains to screens, we can train ourselves to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli.
Can We Really Control Our Brains?
We now know that our brains never stop making new connections. New neural pathways are constantly created as a response to every novel experience we encounter. Using what we know about this phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, the idea that we can train our brains to respond differently to common stimuli isn’t that far-fetched.
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback where patients learn to control brainwave activities by responding to a display of the electrical activity in their brains. Utilizing the electroencephalogram (EEG), which was first developed in the 1920s and is used widely in modern medicine, patients are able to see a visual representation of the electrical activity on a screen and with practice, can change how their brains respond to certain stimuli.
Neurofeedback has been used for years as an adjunctive or complementary therapy to many mental and physical neurologic problems. From allowing stroke patients to relearn motor function to calming adolescents who live with ADHD, neurofeedback has shown promising results.
In a typical neurofeedback session, electrodes, which transmit electrical activity within the brain to a monitor, are applied to the patient’s scalp. The therapist then monitors any fluctuations in brain activity. Frequently, patients are asked to play video games. When certain brainwave targets are met, the patient is rewarded, maybe by gaining points in a game. If no appreciable change occurs, there is no reward. Based on operant conditioning, the more the patient is rewarded for meeting brainwave targets, the more the patient will want to continue to achieve those goals. Thus, the brain is being trained to respond in a certain way to certain stimuli. Sessions typically last 30 minutes to an hour and continue for up to 12 weeks.
Neurofeedback for Depression
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Some studies show there may be room for neurofeedback in the arsenal of treatments for depression. When used in conjunction with pharmaceutical and psychotherapy, brain-training, or neurofeedback, is more effective than drugs or traditional therapy alone. Similar to the way CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, conditions patients to think differently when they notice a trend of unhealthy thinking, neurofeedback allows patients to see those unhealthy thought patterns through a series of lines on a screen. By activating different brainwaves, new neural pathways are created, and new modes of thinking are possible.
Research indicates that by teaching people with treatment-resistant depression to alter brainwave function, symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD) can be minimized, and in some cases, completely obliterated. One study from 2011, monitored improvements in two groups of participants. One group underwent neurofeedback therapy for five weeks (the active group) while the second group took part in traditional psychotherapy (the control group) with no adjunctive treatments. At the conclusion of the study, the active group showed marked improvements to their depression symptoms, some even going into full remission, while the control group showed little to no change in symptoms.
While the mechanisms of neurofeedback have been around for decades, researchers are only just now starting to scrape the surface of its potential use in the treatment of MDD and other mood disorders. There are treatment centers globally in many major metropolitan areas, but it’s not yet so widespread that every therapy office will offer it as a service to patients. Listings can be found online — a place to start is the provider directory at EEGInfo. Note, not all insurance plans will cover neurofeedback therapy, so check with your insurance provider to make sure you’re covered.
Beyond medication and traditional therapy, if you’re looking for an adjunct approach to treating depression, you may find that neurofeedback is a beneficial next step for you.
Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others.