The Science Behind Neurofeedback

Posted on September 1 2019

We are often presented with questions from our participants regarding how neurofeedback actually works.  Specifically, what exactly about this intervention causes the brain to operate differently and how the positive changes can be permanent for some?  This discussion is an in depth explanation of how neurofeedback promotes positive change and the science behind the intervention.

The brain is a remarkable organ that has the ability to self-regulate.  By this we mean the brain automatically controls its own blood supply and can direct increased blood flow to more active areas of the brain as needed.  As you may know, blood carries life sustaining oxygen as well as other nutrients such as glucose that provide cells what they need to function and grow.  The concept of measuring blood flow in the brain is called “perfusion.”  Perfusion can be clearly measured via SPECT and PET scans, and more recently it has been proven that the EEG patterns can actively correlate with perfusion. 

Although the EEG has its origins in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until Dr. Barry Sterman’s work in the 1960’s that we learned EEG patterns can be identified as regulated or dysregulated, and these brain wave patterns can be controlled by the participant via the concept of operant conditioning.  For example, the brain of an adult or child with ADHD may show a low activation type dysregulation, meaning the brain lacks activity in certain regions that is necessary for the person to maintain sustained focus and effort.  The concept of operant conditioning is basically a method of “positive reinforcement,” whereby when we reward regulated brain wave patterns we tend to get more of that type of pattern and less dysregulated patterns.  The brain then changes structurally and biologically at a cellular level.  At microscopic levels small connections are made in the brain’s neurons and these neuronal connections are developed via perfusion.  So, in the case of our ADHD child or adult, we are using the EEG to find areas of the brain that are under focused, increase activity in these regions via operant conditioning, and allowing the brain to do what it does naturally - namely grow and develop these new connections via perfusion.   

Another issue to consider with neurofeedback is the effect chronic stress has on the brain.  When stressed, the body automatically secrets a cortisol hormone to activate organs of the body to respond to the stressful event.  When a person is chronically stressed this hormone is secreted excessively.  Unfortunately, research shows that cortisol can have a negative impact on the brain, among other organs of the body. Specifically, we know cortisol can negatively impact the hippocampus and the temporal lobe regions of the brain.  This impedes the brain’s ability to focus and learn, among other negative consequences.  For this type of condition we use neurofeedback to help train a relaxation response to counter-act the release of cortisol and to provide a calming effect for the brain and the central nervous system. 

The amount of training (i.e. operant conditioning) required for most participants is 20-40 sessions.  At this point most participants (or their brains rather!) have received enough positive reinforcement and neuronal growth to make pronounced change possible.  Research demonstrates that approximately 50-60% see significant reduction of symptoms at this point in the neurofeedback process and approximately 80% will report positive improvement at single or multiple levels.  Some may require periodic maintenance sessions after completing the initial program if they find symptoms returning.

The place to start is a one-time consultation where we can measure you (or your child’s) brain wave patterns for evidence of dysregulation.  At that appointment we will discuss how the type of dysregulation discovered can be causing certain problems and how neurofeedback training may help address those problems.  A number of behavioral conditions can be associated with certain types of dysregulation, including ADHD, trauma issues and PTSD, anxiety, stress, depression, autism, migraine headaches, among others.  A good assessment will help individualized your training plan (in neurofeedback “one size” training methods does not fit all) and help you achieve the results you desire. 

A special thank-you to Dr. Jay Gunkelman, Dr. Seigried Othmer, and Dr. Lynda Thompson whose articles and publications were researched and utilized in putting together this information.