Health Professional Introduction
To function, the brain must actively maintain its bio-electrical state across all behaviorally relevant timescales. Neurofeedback is brain exercise directed at fundamental brain regulatory mechanisms of these states.
Pharmacological intervention is typically directed toward longer timescales (days, weeks, and months), whereas for short timescales (seconds to hours) the brain is largely on its own.
What does the EEG tell us?
The only technique capable of revealing brain’s state of regulatory activity on the timescale of seconds is the EEG (and its cousin, the magnetoencephalogram, or MEG). The EEG reveals not what is thought, but shows the context in which thinking occurs—state of arousal, state of vigilance and alertness, etc.
A predominant feature of the EEG is rhythmic activity, or periodicity. Recent findings in the neurosciences indicate that this may be the means by which the brain maintains continuity of state, and even working memory.
EEG Conditioning and Neurobehavioral Change
Thirty years ago, research demonstrated that operant conditioning on EEG frequency distributions effected significant changes in behavior alterations in sleep architecture in cats. Researchers found the changes reduced susceptibility to chemically induced seizures.
There was little basis for understanding these startling results at the time. Since then, it has emerged that rhythmicity may be a general property of brain self-regulatory activity, and that operant conditioning on such rhythmic properties can influence behavior broadly.
Problems in Brain Timing – A Link to Psychopathology
It has been recently proposed that much of psychopathology could be attributed to problems in brain timing, e.g. problems in organizing these rhythmic properties. Dr. Rodolfo Llinas, a professor at New York University Medical School and a leading researcher in Neuroscience, has suggested that varied psychiatric and neurological conditions could be attributed simply to “thalamocortical dysrythmias,” a pathological disruption of the continuity of rhythmic brain processes than underpin behavior.
Simultaneously, in the clinical realm, findings have accumulated for broad efficacy of a technique of operant conditioning on EEG parameters. These results have ranged over disparate clinical categories (from depression to autism, migraines and epilepsy), and have often been so dramatic in nature that they have invited skepticism.
Few of these results have been subjected to rigorous research, thus maintaining the skeptical posture of academic scientists. Clinicians, on the other hand, are propelled forward by the results that they see.
Enhance Brain State through Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning on EEG frequency and phase parameters effects improved self-regulation in broad generality. This is known as EEG biofeedback, or neurofeedback. The mechanism of efficacy appears to be that the training enhances the capacity of the brain to maintain continuity of state. Further, efficacy means that these rhythmic mechanisms really do lie at the basis of neuroregulation in the time domain.
There is reason to believe that an entirely new approach to psychopathologies will be opened up by considering and responding to brain behavior in the time domain. And because there is very little nexus to pharmacological interventions, there is no reason for pharmacologically oriented scientists to have come upon this theory of behavior regulation, or even to understand it once they are confronted with it.
If brain processes are coordinated by rhythmic phenomena, then communication between different brain regions should be discernible in phase relationships between these regions. That is indeed the case. Moreover, operant conditioning on such phase variables can effect normalization, with concomitant clinical improvement. Hence a second important aspect of neurofeedback may be the normalization of cortical network functional properties.
Clinical Improvements through Better Brain Self Regulation
In conclusion, neurofeedback offers a way of appealing to cortical rhythmic properties—both local and non-local—and by these means improve self-regulation in the brain. As a result, broad clinical improvement may be observed in those conditions that may be attributed to a self-regulatory deficit. These conditions appear to include various arousal disorders, attention disorders, mood disorders, and specific learning deficits.
The neurofeedback training may also improve function in the context of actual organic injury such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and seizures.