How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress
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Neurofeedback still has its skeptics among consumers too, especially since it remains unregulated; anyone who can afford the equipment can rent an office, hang a shingle and treat patients (see "How to choose a neurofeedback practitioner" box on page 51). Today, however, Evans says, "We've reached a tipping point where there are hardcore science people working in neurofeedback and articles being published in good journals, and it's becoming much more difficult for mainstream medicine to ignore. No one can say any longer that there is no science behind it."
The studies that have generated the most enthusiasm are the ones suggesting that the treatment offers a drug-free alternative for children with ADHD. A review of the scientific literature in 2005, for example, noted that 75 percent of kids with ADHD treated with neurofeedback improved—compared to about 70 percent treated with drugs—and no study has reported negative effects. A 2007 study from the University Hospital of Tübingen in Germany showed that after a treatment regime lasting several months, children diagnosed with ADHD not only improved their behavior and increased their ability to concentrate "significantly," but added nearly 10 points to their IQs—a result maintained six months after the study ended.
Skeptics have long argued that the benefits of neurofeedback to children with ADHD could be attributed to the placebo effect—or that the children could achieve similar improvement if they spent the same amount of time working with parents on focused tasks like assembling puzzles. By this logic, it isn't the technology of neurofeedback that helps children with ADHD, but the attention and effort of parents and therapists working in concert to support learning and concentration. To find out the truth, Swiss researchers at the University of Zurich created a controlled study to isolate neurofeedback from other factors. One group of children with ADHD was given neurofeedback, while another entered an intensive behavioral therapy program that used traditional techniques to teach them to focus. The results were dramatic: Children in the neurofeedback trial improved markedly on indices of attention and "metacognition" (the awareness of one's mental processes), whereas children in the behavioral therapy group showed no significant improvement.
But there was just one caveat. The researchers noted that the results seemed "mediated by unspecific factors, such as parental support or certain properties of the therapeutic setting and content." So, while neurofeedback works, it isn't a magic bullet—parental support and the right clinical setting, which might include other therapies, are key to realizing its potential.
Importantly, however, that potential goes beyond the treatment of disorders. Indeed, neurofeedback seems remarkably effective at improving mental focus and concentration, even for apparently "normal" individuals. "We've just done a study training eye surgeons," says Gruzelier of Goldsmiths College in London, "and we found that the rhythm that's very effective in reducing hyperactivity in ADHD children also helped enhance surgical performance by 20 percent." The aim was to do the surgery as quickly and accurately as possible, and neurofeedback training, which enhanced beta waves while relaxing the cerebral cortex to reduce hyperactive movements, seemed to enhance surgeons' ability to modulate their performance. "Instead of just charging at the target," Gruzelier says, "they were actually slightly longer and more methodical in their preparatory time, then faster and more accurate on task."
Athletes and performers often associate such success with being "in the zone." Many athletes believe neurofeedback allows them to pause racing thoughts and live wholly in the moment of the game. Prominent among them is Chris Kamen, the center for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and struggled in his early career, despite his imposing seven-foot height. In 2007, he discovered neurofeedback and soon improved his scoring and rebounding by more than 50 percent. As important, Kamen says, his life off the court improved as he stopped making impulsive decisions.