Neurofeedback: Your Complete Guide to What It Is and How It Works

How Neurofeedback Works

Do you struggle to maintain your attention when you read?  Do you have a hard time falling asleep or staying sleep at night?

Maybe you have difficulty finding the right words in conversations. Or you might be struggling with your performance at school, home or work. Even worse, you might be suffering from anxiety.

If you have any of these issues and would like to overcome them without medications, there is a new treatment protocol that may be just perfect for you: Neurofeedback.

This drug-free program of improving your brain waves has been shown – through hundreds of published studies – to help patients with insomnia, anxiety, concussion, memory loss with aging, addiction, and ADHD symptoms. 

The Origins of Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback first began in the late 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Joe Kamiya conducted studies using electroencephalogram (EEG) to look at consciousness. He found that by using a simple reward system, his subjects could change their brain activity.

The Cat Study

Dr. Barry Sterman later worked with cats to alter their brain activity by giving them treats when they responded in the right way. His work aimed at teaching the cats to increase their sensory motor rhythm (SMR). The cats learned to change their brain patterns to get the treat.

Years later, Dr. Sterman worked with NASA to test the effects of lunar landing fuel exposure. Once again, he used cats in this experiment.

When the cats were exposed to the fuel, their brains experienced instability. First, they became drowsy and then developed headaches, hallucinations, and seizures. The cats finally died from the exposure.

Amazingly, the cats from Dr. Sterman’s previous experiment did not experience these deadly effects. Their previous training seemed to have made their brains ultra-resistant to the toxic fuel.

Using these findings, Dr. Sterman began training patients with epilepsy in SMR to decrease their seizures. Sixty percent of his patients experienced lasting reduction of their seizures by 20 to 100%.

To this day, NASA’s astronaut training program incorporates SMR and neurofeedback training. Outcomes include increased focus and brain resiliency as well as decreased stress.

How Neurofeedback Can Benefit You

Electrical impulses, or brain waves, move through the brain and account for your ability for all the things you do such as walking, typing, cooking, or driving as well as eating, going to the bathroom, sweating, or getting scared.

Brain waves determine how we feel, how we interact with others, how well we sleep, and how organized we are. 

When our brain waves are too slow or too fast, we may feel too sluggish or too nervous. Harmonized brain waves are essential for feeling good and functioning in the optimal range. 

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that helps you harmonize your brain waves, naturally (without medications). During the neurofeedback sessions, your brain “learns” how to bring abnormally fast or slow waves into the normal range.  You sit back and watch a movie while we monitor your brain waves.

When your brain waves are good (i.e. they are in the optimal range), you are rewarded by watching the movie without interruptions.

But when you get distracted and your brain waves slip into the abnormal range, the screen in front of you fades; this negative experience tips your brain to move its oscillations toward the optimal range.

As soon as this happens, you (i.e. your brain) is rewarded by having the movie continue without any pauses or fading.

Much like a dog “learns” to catch a ball in order to receive a reward, your brain “learns” to optimize the brain waves that are associated with being calm and focused. In other words, your brain gets rewarded when your brain waves (based on the EEG feedback) are harmonized. 

Problems That Can Improve with Neurofeedback

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic as long-term effects in athletes have come to light. Common consequences of concussions include migraines, general anxiety, sleep disorders, and cognitive problems. Neurofeedback training has helped 68.2% of TBI patients improve in 5 of 15 areas of their brain functions.

There are several other conditions that improve with neurofeedback training. 

Individuals living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), strokes, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, seizures, age-related memory loss, and sleep disorders have shown improvement in different aspects of their cognitive abilities and their daily functions. 

Neurofeedback programs may also be helpful for individuals with:

  • addictions
  • anger management
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • eating disorders
  • headaches/migraines
  • learning disorders
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • pain management
  • insomnia

Athletes are also using neurofeedback to enhance focus, decrease stress, and to boost their performance.

How Is Neurofeedback Done?

Let’s assume you have some difficulty with attention, anxiety, or sleep and you want to improve your brain waves. To begin, we arrange for you to complete a qEEG (also known as brain mapping). 

Our EEG technician first places a cap on your head that has 20 holes in certain places. Gel, which usually feels cool on your scalp, is placed in each of the holes. Sensors are embedded into each of these holes and can record your brain’s electrical impulses.

We obtain recordings of your brain’s electrical impulses both when you are fully awake and when you are relaxed with your eyes closed.  

Your unique brain waves are then compared with a “normative database” and a map is generated to show which parts of your brain are too fast and which parts are too sluggish, or if your brain waves are not operating in a harmonious way.

Dr. Fotuhi reviews your brain map, and in a combination of his knowledge of the specific brain symptoms you have, he orders a specific neurofeedback protocol for you; this protocol will help you move your brain waves toward the normal range in order for you to feel calmer and more focused.  

Our EEG technician follows Dr. Fotuhi’s protocol recommendation and sets you up for your first neurofeedback session. 

During the training, you sit in a comfortable chair and watch a movie on a computer screen. The screen fades when your brain waves are too fast or too slow, but the screen becomes bright instantly when your brain waves are normalized. 

As you watch the movie, you see that the screen fades in and out. Each fading reflects how your brain waves were outside the optimal range for a few seconds, and each correction of this fading reflects how your brain figured out to correct itself.

Your brain “keeps learning” with each fading and its correction. Each neurofeedback session usually lasts 45 minutes. You will receive neurofeedback twice a week for 12 weeks.

By the time you finish your neurofeedback treatment protocol in three months, you become calmer and more focused. You feel sharper and faster.

How Do You Prepare for a Neurofeedback Session?

Planning and preparing for your neurofeedback session can improve progress toward treatment goals. Here are several suggestions that you may wish to consider before you sit on your comfortable neurofeedback chair:

  • get plenty of rest the night before
  • turn off your mobile phone and other electronic devices
  • avoid or decrease caffeine intake that day
  • wash your hair so that it is clean and dry

What Questions Should I Ask My Healthcare Provider?

It is prudent to create a list of questions when seeing a healthcare provider or starting a new treatment program. Here are some questions you may have before you start a 12-week neurofeedback program:

  • How long are the treatment sessions?
  • How often are treatment sessions scheduled?
  • Will I be able to return to work immediately after a session?
  • What do I have to do to before each session?
  • Are there things I will need to do between sessions?
  • How soon will I know if the treatment is working?
  • How much will the treatment cost?
  • Does insurance cover this treatment?
  • Can I take my regular medications during my treatment program?

 Is Neurofeedback for You?

Do you struggle to get through your daily life? Have you always had this problem, or do you know what caused it? Neurofeedback can greatly improve your quality of life.

People who receive neurofeedback treatment usually describe their experience as an interesting and absorbing experience. They also say that it feels euphoric and very relaxing.

Consider exploring neurofeedback to  improve your mood, your sleep, and your ability to function better on a daily life.