What is neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback, a process of collecting information such as heart rate, blood pressure and brain wave patterns with an aim to establish control over these automatic processes in a human body. Neurofeedback is also known as EEG biofeedback, because it uses electroencephalogram or EEG. EEG is a machine that measures brain activity, with an aim to achieve self-regulation of brain function during and after neurofeedback therapy.

Neurofeedback started in the 1950s and 60s as a part of astronaut training, but its application in medicine began in the early 80s. Today it is widely used to treat various mental health disorders such as ADHD, drug abuse and addiction, suicidal behavior, anxiety and depression. Its use is not necessarily restricted to mental health disorders; it is also used by professional sports players, businessmen and others who want to achieve their peak performance.

What neurofeedback really does is that it retrains a brain to form a strong foundation for recovery from addiction. It sets the mind in a more relaxed, focused and calm state. All of this is achieved through positive reinforcement, or in other words a process of rewarding brain activity patterns that signalize relaxed and calm brain. The brain seeks the reward and practically trains itself to be more relaxed and more focused.
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive technique and it does not have any side effects, which is an advantage when compared to medications. Its effects are considered to be long-term, and after a proper training with a professional its use can be continued at home by an individual.

Techniques used in Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback relies on brain signals received through EEG or electroencephalogram. EEG consists of several electrodes that record brain activity. Electrodes are placed on the scalp and every brain activity recorded is visible on a computer screen in the form of brain waves. This procedure is entirely non-invasive. Certain desirable brain wave patterns are translated into a combination of sounds and images feedback. These sounds and images are presented to a patient.
The patient is exposed to brainwave activity information in the form of a video game. For example, the car is able to maintain proper speed only if one fully concentrates. This way, the patient is able to see what is going on in their brain as they are thinking certain thoughts or feeling certain emotions. For an individual suffering from addiction, neurofeedback can help identify negative brain activity associated with drug cravings and other thoughts related to psychological addictions.

Through positive reinforcement, the brain is stimulated to replace these negative brainwave patterns that represent thoughts of drug cravings and other negative emotions such as anxiety and depression with healthier brainwave patterns. Neural plasticity is an ability of the central nervous system to change itself under different circumstances. This capability allows the brain to retrain itself through neurofeedback.

In order for neurofeedback treatment to be effective, it takes from 20 to 30 sessions with a trained therapist. Neurofeedback, unlike other types of treatment, does not carry any risk of unwanted side effects and is possibly the safest addiction treatment available. After treatment with neurofeedback is conducted the brain has trained itself to maintain a certain state of relaxation even without electrodes placed on the head.


Who benefits from neurofeedback?

When it was first discovered neurofeedback was being used for training astronauts, pilots and others whose profession required high levels of concentration and calmness. Today neurofeedback treatment is used for treating a broad spectrum of psychiatric and psychological issues from anxiety and ADHD to addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Indications for neurofeedback range widely and can help in those with learning disabilities, depression, fibromyalgia, autism, stroke, insomnia, tinnitus, headaches and for the enhancement of peak performance, when other therapies showed to be ineffective. Professional sports players and other highly successful people have been known to follow neurofeedback sessions in order to improve their performance as neurofeedback increases ability to focus and concentrate on certain tasks.
When treating those suffering from substance abuse, neurofeedback is often used as a part of polytherapy, combined with other forms of treatment such as various medications. Neurofeedback can help reduce amount and doses of medications needed for treatment of addiction. In some cases, it helps lessen the number of different medications used as it helps with insomnia, anxiety and depression without unwanted side effects drugs produce.
Goals of neurofeedback

Neurofeedback uses EEG to decipher brainwave activity. There are several brainwave forms seen on a computer during an EEG recording, and each one represents different thought or emotion pattern. There are five brainwave types recorded through EEG that are significant for neurofeedback therapy:

1. Alpha waves are dominant on an EEG while in a resting awake state with eyes closed. They are reduced when eyes are open and during sleep. They originate mostly from occipital lobe.
2. Beta waves are highest frequency brainwaves. Dominantly seen while the person is awake and focused on tasks in the outside world.
3. Gamma waves are found in every part of the brain and are dominant on an EEG finding in association with perception and consciousness.
4. Theta waves are seen in meditation and vivid REM dreams.
5. Delta waves are the slowest frequency brainwaves. They are seen in states of meditation, deep relaxation and sleep.

The knowledge of what each wave represents is important in setting and achieving goals during neurofeedback therapy. The primary goal of neurofeedback is to replace brainwaves of less arousal in those who are depressed with brain waves that code more aroused frequency. The same thing can be done in anxiety. This is important as these are two of the most common issues people who are fighting addiction face.

How neurofeedback benefits substance abuse treatment

Neurofeedback benefits addiction treatment in numerous ways. It is common for those suffering from mental health disorders, for example ADHD or anxiety, to tend to turn to drug abuse to alter their brain function to achieve a relaxed or calm state of mind. For these people, drugs seem like the only way to maintain focus and improve their everyday life activities.

Through neurofeedback, they are taught to achieve calmness and relaxation without using drugs. This helps in reducing the chance of leaving treatment too early and returning to a former habit of substance abuse.

Neurofeedback can also aid in the reduction of withdrawal syndrome symptoms. It helps patients with insomnia, restless leg syndrome and reduces symptoms of psychological dependence as well.
Psychological dependence, in the form of drug cravings, is the longest lasting drug addiction consequence and a common reason for addiction relapse. Neurofeedback also helps resolve problems that may have led to addiction in the first place. For example, it helps teach people how to cope with anxiety and depression, emotions most people face.

Effectiveness of neurofeedback

Neurofeedback has shown to be highly effective in treating substance use disorders. Addiction is a brain disease, and over 50% of addicts will experience relapse according to scientists. This is usually due to brain instability during early stages of recovery. Neurofeedback not only lowers incidence of dropping out of treatment but also reduces time spent in rehab. This is thought to be due to its ability to produce a similar effect on the brain as the drugs that led to addiction. Another important effect of neurofeedback that is vital for keeping patients in an addiction rehab program is that it keeps the brain active during difficult periods of cravings and reduced motivation for continuing therapy.