Neurofeedback in Recovery
Neurofeedback is a subdivision of a more general treatment, biofeedback. Neurofeedback is also known as EEG biofeedback. All forms of neurofeedback, like biofeedback in general, use technological devices to collect information about the brain directly from the brain. Brain waves can provide this information. At a minimum, neurofeedback relies on the use of a monitoring device, electronic sensors, and software that can read the incoming brain wave data. This data in turn creates brain maps. An expert trained in neurofeedback can then develop an understanding as to which neurological pathways have become dysregulated in a client, such as a person recovering from drug addiction.
Again, EEG biofeedback is the same as neurofeedback. Since literature in this area uses these terms interchangeably, it’s important to be aware that they’re synonymous. But what is EEG exactly? EEG is an acronym for electroencephalogram (EEG), and it is a test that is used to find abnormalities in the electrical activity of the brain. EEG biofeedback, or neurofeedback, tracks and keeps a record of the patterns of brain waves. A professional trained in neurofeedback can recognize healthy electrical activity patterns. When abnormal patterns are seen, the neurofeedback practitioner will know how to work with the client to try and restore optimal balance in the affected area of the brain. When neurofeedback is effective, an abnormal brain wave pattern will be shifted into a normal one.
For example, consider a person who chronically experiences problems with concentration. Research shows that this person may have an abnormal theta wave pattern in the brain. A neurofeedback specialist can use EEG technology to create a map of the brain. If theta functioning is dysregulated, the neurofeedback specialist can train this person to slow their theta waves, which are in the frontal lobe of the brain. Research shows that the slower the theta wave functioning is in the frontal lobe, the greater a person’s power of concentration. By extension, a person is less likely to be distracted by disruptive thoughts or outside stimuli. The neurofeedback therapy requires more than one session, but the neurofeedback specialist will be able to read the ongoing brain maps to see if the client’s brain activity is improving.
What Happens in a Neurofeedback Session?An article published by The Fix provides insight into what a typical neurofeedback session looks like. The neurofeedback practitioner will attach electrodes to a client’s scalp. These electrodes will be hooked up to a monitoring system that is running any one of several different software programs that can read brain wave information. When the session starts, the client’s brain will be stimulated in any number of ways, such as by interacting with a video game.
However, a neurofeedback game is not a regular video game; the game performance will be controlled by the ability to exercise control over one’s brain. The clients will immediately get feedback. For example, the speed of a plane in the video game may only be able to improve with greater concentration. The clients will be able to sense or feel their way through the game, which has the effect of programming the brain to behave in a desired way.
In short, the neurofeedback helps the clients to have an awareness of how their brain works and how they can control it to get the outcomes they want.
Essentially, the brain can potentially heal its dysregulation and dysfunction by being brought into a healthy state. For illumination purposes, consider the work of Dr. Siegfried Othmer of the EEG Institute; he is also the director of the nonprofit Homecoming for Veterans. Dr. Othmer believes that conditions such as PTSD require physiological – and not only psychological – treatment to be healed. For Dr. Othmer, neurofeedback trains the brain into a healthy state in a way that talk therapy alone cannot do. According to Dr. Othmer, the brain wants to be in an optimal state, and from that place, it can properly support a person’s healthy survival. Through neurofeedback, individuals can be trained to steer their brains back to this place. The more time the brain spends in this healthier space, the stronger it gets, and the more likely it is that the person will operate from there on a day-to-day basis.
Neurofeedback Can Help Break the Cycle of AddictionThe National Institute on Drug Abuse, a foremost authority on addiction, accepts the brain disease model of addiction. Any notion that drug addiction owes to a moral failing or a lack of self-control is simply outdated; addiction is a brain disease. The initial decision to abuse a drug may be voluntary, but over time, individuals will lose their ability to make a voluntary decision vis-à-vis drugs. This is because drug use leads to structural changes in the brain that motivate the affected person to keep using drugs.
In view of the brain disease model of addiction, it makes sense that neurofeedback can treat addiction. A neurofeedback specialist who is working with a recovering person can create a brain map to locate any areas in the brain where electrical activity is abnormal. From there, the specialist can create a targeted training program to redress inactivity, underactivity, or over-activity. As the physiological hallmarks of the addiction improve, the symptoms of addiction should as well, including relapse.
A UCLA study found that neurofeedback can improve the rate of abstinence. BrainPaint is a branded technology in the neurofeedback treatment industry. This technology was tested in 2005 in a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) neurofeedback and addiction treatment study. It relied, in part, on addiction research that shows: (1) that individuals with a history of addiction tend to have a very difficult time changing their behavior (hence the 40-60 percent drug relapse rate), and (2) the brain usually experiences instability in the early stages of recovery.
The UCLA study revealed that EEG biofeedback treatment plus participation in a 12-Step program could help recovering people to accept change (from addiction to recovery) and help the brain to become stable. In specific, EEG treatment improved the participants’ rates of abstinence at the one-year recovery mark. The participants were able to achieve this positive outcome, in part, because EEG treatment helped to keep the brain’s cortex active when they felt like resisting change (which in this case was running away from their recovery plan or relapsing). The study noted that EEG biofeedback is not a standalone treatment for drug recovery, but it can be beneficial when used in conjunction with an abstinence supportive service, such as a 12-Step program.
Advancements in addiction research keep underscoring how drugs hijack the brain. Clinicians are increasingly understanding the need to look into the brains of recovering individuals. When it comes to drug addiction, anyone affected by it sees the symptoms in action. The true source of the problem was invisible throughout much of the history of drug addiction, but not anymore. Brain maps can now show recovering individuals the neurobiological reality of their disease. Neurofeedback sessions can be an effective form of treatment for those recovering individuals who would like to learn how to train their brains back to a state conducive to a drug-free living.