Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback for the brain. Just as a heart rate monitor informs us about the heart’s function, electrodes measure and inform us of the brain’s function during neurofeedback. The brain is comprised of billions of specialized nerve cells, or neurons, which communicate with each other through chemical and electrical signals. The electrical component of this communication is measured as an electroencephalogram (EEG). Electricity flows in wave form, so the EEG activity we measure on the surface of the scalp is also referred to as “brainwave activity.”
Brainwaves are characterized by their speed and measured in hertz, or cycles per second. Different types of brainwaves are responsible for different functions. Slower brainwaves dominate our EEG pattern during sleep, while faster waves are more pronounced during problem-solving. Each of our brains have all of the different types of brainwaves present in all locations at all times, but it is the balance or ratio of particular brainwaves that allows us to perform a variety of functions, maintain the appropriate level of arousal to match a task or environment, and switch between states of alertness without difficulty. In order for our brains to function optimally, we must have the appropriate balance of brainwaves at the correct times. Disruptions in this balance lead to associated disruptions in function. For example, a brain producing excess slow wave activity may be unable to attend and focus, or may lead to depression. A brain with excessive amounts of fast wave activity may create anxiety or impact sleep.
The process of neurofeedback allows us not only to monitor brain wave patterns, but also to change them for greater efficiency and more optimal function. During NF training, the client is informed of his brainwave patterns by viewing a computer screen that shows a computer game or movie. When the client’s brainwaves match the parameters set by the therapist, the client earns points on the video game, or the movie becomes clear. When the client’s brain is not producing efficient brainwaves, the video game stalls, or the movie becomes dark.
This visual information supplies the feedback component of neurofeedback. Additionally, NF systems use an auditory signal to provide feedback. Each time the client’s brainwave meets a series of criteria, a tone sounds. This informs the client’s brain that it is working optimally. The visual and auditory feedback components of NF train the brain through the process of operant conditioning. The more the brain is “rewarded” for performing optimally through visual and auditory feedback, the more often it will fire in these efficient patterns.
What differentiates neurofeedback from treatment through medication is that the changes created in NF training actually alter brain physiology. Therefore, if NF is practiced sufficiently, the brain’s structure and firing patterns will change, causing the client to function more optimally at baseline (without further treatment). This process is possible through neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain can reorganize itself.
Neurofeedback has been studied since the 1960s and used clinically since the early 1970s. Research is continually being updated and is showing increasing conditions for which neurofeedback is an efficacious treatment. Please visit: The Comprehensive Bibliography of Neurofeedback in Scholarly Articles for more information about the current literature regarding the use of neurofeedback in treating a variety of conditions.