“ Neurofeedback ” is a form of biofeedback training that aims to help people learn how to consciously control certain aspects of their brain activity. This promising new technology has been proposed to be a potential treatment for a wide variety of different conditions, from depression, ADHD, chronic pain, headaches, and even some symptoms of PTSD and schizophrenia. Does it work? Read on to learn more. What is Neurofeedback?
“ Biofeedback training ” is a growing trend in healthcare, where people are hooked up to devices for measuring different aspects of bodily functions in order to see how these processes are taking place in real-time. People can then be trained to learn to control the way these processes are carried out [ 1 , 2 ].
“ Neurofeedback ” is a specific form of biofeedback training, which is based on the idea that people can consciously alter the way their brains function by using training programs to help them to visualize and learn to change the patterns of electrical activity taking place in their brain [ 3 ]. Purported Benefits of Neurofeedback Therapy
While a considerable amount of early research has been done on neurofeedback, it is still a relatively new technology, and not much is known about the exact mechanisms underlying each different form of neurofeedback training.
There is also another major limitation that is worth noting about much of the existing research: because neurofeedback requires a person to be hooked up to complex devices and extensively trained, it is often difficult, impractical, or even impossible to have proper “control” groups to compare the effects to. This means that it’s possible that many of the reported findings so far are simply due to the “placebo” effect [ 4 ].
Therefore, due both to a general lack of adequate research so far, as well as methodological limitations when it comes to ruling out possible “placebo” effects, all of the purported uses described below are currently considered to have “insufficient evidence” to come to any firm conclusions about the efficacy of neurofeedback training. None of the uses below have been FDA-approved, and much more research will be needed before any of the proposed uses below could become officially approved and accepted as valid medical approaches to treating the various conditions and other biological functions discussed below.
With that in mind, let’s review what some of the preliminary research so far has to say about the potential effects of neurofeedback training!
Some researchers have proposed that neurofeedback may help to enhance neuroplasticity (the capacity of the brain to change and adapt). This, in turn, could possibly help to slow or reverse the natural declines in cognitive function that occur over aging [ 5 ].
For example, one early study reported that neurofeedback training improved cognitive processing speed and executive function in elderly subjects [ 6 ].
Other studies have reported that certain specific types of neurofeedback training, such as decreasing sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) beta rhythms, may help improve reaction time [ 7 ].
According to another preliminary study, subjects who were able to learn to boost their alpha brain wave activity via neurofeedback were reported to perform better at a visual-spatial reasoning task (mental object rotation) [ 8 , 9 ].
While these early results are promising, little is known about how long-lasting these changes might be, or how significant any changes in overall cognitive functioning might be. Therefore, considerably more research work will still be needed to verify and extend these preliminary findings further.
Neurofeedback is under investigation for its potential to affect cognitive function and neuroplasticity, but studies have been limited in both scope and term so far.
Problems with working memory are often associated with issues with attention and short-term memory.
According to some preliminary findings, healthy individuals have reported to improve their working memory and extend their attention spans by increasing certain types of brain wave activity (in this case, alpha-, theta-, and SMR waves) [ 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 ].
Another study in 32 human subjects reported that EEG-based neurofeedback improved attention and working memory in older patients, while younger subjects improved their concentration and attention (executive functioning). This led some researchers to suggest that neurofeedback may be an effective way to prevent age-related cognitive impairment – although more research will be needed to find out for sure [ 15 , 16 ].
In one other study, fMRI-based neurofeedback training (a type of MRI that can be used to monitor brain responses in real-time) was used to help 18 healthy adults learn to control their blood oxygen level-dependent signals, and was reported to lead to improved working memory abilities [ 17 ].
Some researchers are investigating whether neurofeedback could improve problems with attention and working memory. So far, the evidence is insufficient to support any claims.
Some early evidence suggests that EEG-based neurofeedback training may have potential to enhance the acquisition and organizations of new memories (both short- and long-term memory) [ 18 ].
According to one preliminary study in 50 healthy adults, using an EEG-based neurofeedback program to boost alpha wave strength was reportedly associated with increases in the accuracy of multiple types of memory (episodic, working, short-term). The stronger the boost in alpha waves, the more memory enhancement each subject showed [ 19 , 20 ].
In another study, EEG-based neurofeedback training (targeting SMR and upper alpha waves) was reported to improve verbal memory, short-term visual memory, and working memory in 70% of the subjects (including 17 stroke patients and 40 healthy control subjects). This neurofeedback training was reported to be more effective than traditional cognitive training, and the study’s authors proposed that neurofeedback could potentially benefit patients suffering from brain damage (such as the stroke patients in their study) [ 21 ].
Finally, another study in 27 healthy human subjects reported that EEG-based neurofeedback improved memory consolidation during sleep [ 22 ].
In a few small clinical studies, neurofeedback affected the acquisition and organization of new memories, but it’s unclear whether these results have any reliable clinical application.
In a few preliminary studies, EEG-based neurofeedback was used […]