From the Archives: Neurofeedback

One of our recent news stories discusses the promise of neurofeedback in the form of real time fMRI. A quick search of our files shows that we’ve touted the promise of neurofeedback—in the form of EEG—for at least the past 13 years. Have researchers finally hit pay dirt?

The latest story, “The Promise of Neurofeedback” by Carl Sherman, reports on research suggesting that people in a functional magnetic resonance imager, shown real-time images of their brain’s activity, can alter it, dampening or enhancing a target area. In one study, people with depression who used replays of pleasant memories to bump activity in certain areas also showed improvement on measures of their depressive symptoms. According to one of the researchers, David E. J. Linden of Cardiff University:

“The most important finding of this initial study was that neurofeedback is feasible in patients with depression, who often have motivational deficits. It was acceptable to them. In fact they were happy to come back for repeated sessions in the scanner; they seemed to enjoy the process, which can’t be said for many activities they do.”

These studies are small-scale and investigational—success in the lab does not guarantee lasting success in the real world—but they do seem to show we’re getting somewhere. Back in 2010, our story “Controlling Your Mind with the Help of fMRI” reported on a proof-of-principle experiment in the lab of Anna Rose Childress that allowed her subjects—including even crack cocaine addicts—to learn to control a cursor on a computer screen using only their thoughts, and with almost no training. “It’s extremely rapid, extremely accurate, and basically can be done by almost anyone,” Childress says in the story.

Way back, in 2001, neurofeedback meant EEG and arguing that this wasn’t woo-woo science. In an essay for Cerebrum, “Mastering Our Brain’s Electrical Rhythms,” Lester G. Fehmi describes his 28 years of research into “brain-wave training,” including a short history of the field. His focus was on managing attention, aiming for a quiet state that could switch to extreme focus when needed.

For decades, research institutions and funding agencies have favored research on the brain’s biochemistry, what scientist once dubbed the “soup.” But brain chemistry is just part of the picture. The brain is not static, and the flow of neurotransmitters is not fixed. When we change the way we pay attention, we alter cortical rhythms—the spark—and in turn alter the chemical milieu—the soup— as well as the brain’s structure. Spark and soup are inseparable. We should start funding investigations into fundamental alternatives to the reigning orthodoxy of only brain chemistry.

Dr. Fehmi wrote his essay with the help of science writer Jim Robbins. In 2000, Cerebrum ran an excerpt of Robbins’s book, A Symphony in the Brain, preceded by a 2-page introduction to the subject. This essay roams a bit wide, but does include interesting history of studies in neurofeedback. Here’s one:

In the 1970s, Dr. M. Barry Sterman, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was doing sleep research on cats. … Sterman operantly conditioned some cats to create [an] alpha frequency, so he could study the way it affected their sleep.

Then, in one of those fortuitous accidents of science, he used those same cats, along with fresh cats from the pound, in a different experiment. He received a grant from the Defense Department to study the toxic effects of rocket fuel. When he injected the cats with the fuel, he found that their response followed a predictable course: They started to pant, vocalize, and then go into seizures—except for the cats from the operant conditioning experiment. They never experienced the seizures. It took years to figure out why, but eventually Sterman discovered that the cats he had taught to control their brainwaves had presumably strengthened their brains and made themselves resistant to seizures, findings that were replicated in other studies.

Side note:
Also included in Robbins’ essay, and implied in Fehmi’s, is the idea that we might not find the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) useful for research—or, as the essay’s subhead puts it, “Tossing out the DSM.” Psychiatrist Paul McHugh sounded that same call in 2009 ahead of the latest revision of the manual in his essay for Cerebrum, “Psychiatry at Stalemate.” Just this year, as the manual was being released, NIMH Director Thomas Insel announced that that institute “will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

– Nicky Penttila

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