You don’t have to look hard to find negative opinions about the use of medication to treat ADHD and other mental disorders in kids and teens. Diagnoses are overdone; doctors overprescribe; Big Pharma oversells. Others decry “filling our young people with pills” on principle.
Many parents who’ve heard these viewpoints warily went ahead and had their child or teen take prescription medications to improve functioning and coping – only to find in some cases that the medicines weren’t effective, or the side effects were bad news.
For those who object to pharmaceuticals, or tried them and found them wanting, attention may turn to alternative therapies. I wrote about one such therapy, called EMDR, in this post from the past. Another post dealt with equine therapy. Now let’s look at neurofeedback.
To learn about neurofeedback from the experts, here’s a link that provides a nice summary, other useful information, and some videos to watch as a bonus! To get my non-expert take on it, keep reading.
Neurofeedback is also known as EEG biofeedback. It’s a technique for training the brain to self-regulate better. This is accomplished by monitoring brainwave activity, noticing problematic frequencies that relate to the disorders being treated, and rewarding the brain for changing its patterns to more appropriate ones.
The monitoring is done by applying electrodes to the scalp (no head-shaving or pain is involved.) The electrodes transmit brainwave data to a computer, which displays the information on the monitor. This allows the practitioner to see which brainwave patterns are out of whack, and by how much.
Now here’s the really cool part: the retraining takes the form of a video game. You play the game (like getting a dolphin to swim to the sea floor) just by modulating your brainwaves. No hands! Over time, your brain learns to reproduce the desired pattern that allowed you to achieve the game’s objective.
Who can benefit from neurofeedback therapy? It’s best known for treating individuals with ADHD, but other conditions can be treated as well. Here’s an excerpt from the EEGInfo webpage that was linked to above:
We are especially concerned with the more “intractable” brain-based problems of childhood whose needs are not currently being met. This includes, Seizures and sub-clinical seizure activity, Severely disruptive behavior disorders such as Conduct Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, Autistic spectrum and pervasive developmental delay, Cerebral palsy, Acquired brain injury, Birth trauma.
Many children have sleep problems that can be helped such as Bed wetting, Sleep walking, sleep talking, Teeth grinding, Nightmares, Night terrors.
We can also be helpful with many of the problems of adolescence including Drug abuse, Suicidal behavior, Anxiety and depression.
We can also help to maintain good brain function as people get older. The good news is that almost any brain, regardless of its level of function, can be trained to function better.
I got to know a little about this therapy on meeting the highly-recommended psychologist we took Nathan to a few years back. As it turned out, Dr M offers neurofeedback in addition to psychotherapy. When he described the video game part to us, I blurted out “Ooh! I want to try!” – even though I’m not a gamer in real life. But despite Nathan’s love of video games, he never consented to trying one of Dr M’s hands-free games.
Although I never got to give it a spin, Dr M said he himself had experienced neurofeedback. The results for him were like removing a layer of fuzziness from his senses – not that he thought he’d had fuzziness to begin with. His mental processes also became sharper.
Before going further with this topic, we need to acknowledge that there is controversy about neurofeedback’s effectiveness. This article on Psychology Today’s website notes the lack of properly controlled scientific studies. The author devotes most of the article to skepticism on the claims made for improving general brain function, but includes mention of ADHD treatment, saying the evidence is “promising but not conclusive.”
My own little Google search resulted mostly in supportive findings, usually with a caveat that more research is needed. A recent study in Boston indicates neurofeedback improved classroom behavior and attention. It is suggested that neurofeedback could allow for lower doses of ADHD medication, or supplant medication altogether in some cases.
Here’s an article on the PsychCentral website that presents a positive picture of using neurofeedback to treat ADHD in children. According to this author, some studies indicate that neurofeedback is as effective as Ritalin in controlling ADHD symptoms. If you click on the “View Comments/Leave a Comment” button, you’ll see varying opinions from professionals and from parents whose children have tried the therapy.
In this forum, you’ll see more discussions from families who have tried neurofeedback for ADHD. Some people rave about the results. However, it doesn’t seem to work equally well for every patient, either in terms of how much improvement is noted, or how long the improvements last. But you know, I think the same can be said for most (all?) therapies for brain disorders.
I found fewer discussions out there about using neurofeedback to help those with Aspergers. Here’s the concluding sentence from the abstract of one paper on this topic:
The positive outcomes of decreased symptoms of Asperger’s and ADHD (including a decrease in difficulties with attention, anxiety, aprosodias, and social functioning) plus improved academic and intellectual functioning, provide preliminary support for the use of neurofeedback as a helpful component of effective intervention in people with AS.
If you want to pursue the possibility of neurofeedback therapy, I’d guess that you have at least these two questions: Is there a trained neurofeedback practitioner near me? and, How much of a money-and-time investment will the therapy require?
You’ll be able to answer the first question by searching from here, or from the website of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback (AAPB). You can also find a practitioner (or researcher or educator) from the website of the International Society for Neurofeedback & Research (ISNR).
As for time investment, it seems to take about 40 sessions to achieve lasting improvement – maybe more, sometimes less. The sessions should be scheduled for at least twice a week and typically last around 45 minutes. If/when the improvements taper off, more sessions may be warranted at a later date. Some providers offer the option of doing ongoing or follow-up sessions at home, which a clinician monitors remotely. It saves on cost, but I’ve read there are doubts about the effectiveness of at-home neurofeedback therapy.
Monetary costs to the patient can vary widely, mainly because insurance companies vary in whether they cover the treatment. I found the discussion on this page from a practitioner’s website to be very helpful. At the bottom, you’ll see suggested questions to ask your insurance company about their coverage. To get a practitioner’s point of view on insurance coverage, click here. Because this link discusses various billing codes and strategies to try, I’d refer to it if I were getting the runaround from my insurance company.
My takeaway from all of this is that neurofeedback has its skeptics, and there are no guarantees it would be effective for a given individual. But I would definitely give it consideration as a therapy to try, on its own or in combination with other therapies.
If you’ve had experience with neurofeedback, please leave a comment to let us know what was good, and what was not-so-good about it.
(NOTE: the image of the neurofeedback process at the top of the page is from neurofeedbackholiday.com)