How is Neurofeedback going to improve our lives?
The brain is without a doubt the most complex human organ, but it is also currently the subject of more fundamental research and clinical studies than any other. For a long time, we imagined it to have a fixed structure, yet today neurophysiologists recognize it has true plasticity.
In reality, we are constantly managing a flood of information through cerebral activity. Our brain analyses it and sends regulatory signals: we call this feedback.
Neurofeedback uses this natural ability as a solution so we can address some of our pathologies …by thinking! Discover how Neurofeedback can improve certain afflictions like problems sleeping for example.
How do the brain and cerebral feedback work?
Of course it would be crazy to try and explain how the brain works in a simple article! But we can get reacquainted with ourselves with a few basic notions, so we can understand how to analyze cerebral activity.
How does the brain work (roughly)?
Although the way the brain works is extremely sophisticated and specialized, it all comes down to how a basic neuron cell functions. Did you know that the brain contains a hundred billion of them?!
Each of these neurons basically works like an electrical current transmitter. Everything which our brain does, from movement to calculus, comes down to a succession of electrical micro-impulses. It seems simple when you think about it that way!
What are brainwaves?
This electrical activity triggers brainwaves which can be measured and recorded. It’s what we use an electroencephalogram (EEG) for, by placing a sensors on the head to pick up these electric patterns. However, an EEG cannot however map all of our cerebral activity; it only records waves in the first 4 centimeters of the brain. But this is enough to observe and analyze some physiological and pathological states.
The waves are indeed different depending on our activity, in terms of frequency, duration and amplitude. A denser signal of brainwaves reflects a (larger) activation of the neural circuits involved.
This is how an EEG allows us to detect alpha waves (8-12 Hz), the creativity and relaxation waves; bêta waves (12-30 Hz) which indicate alertness; gamma waves (30-60 Hz) which are present when the brain is analyzing information; delta waves (0-4 Hz), also known as sleep waves, and thêta waves (4-8 Hz), those of deep relaxation.
In some pathologies like sleep disorders, the brain signals are modified and an EEG makes these modifications visible. The diagnosis and the explanation of the disorder thus appear as one and the same.
How does cerebral feedback work?
To keep things simple, we often say that the brain is the body’s conductor. In reality, it is much more than this. Not only does it listen and analyze information, it also regulates it: this is what feedback essentially is.
Just think of a young child learning to ride a bike. The real challenge is for them to discover their sense of balance. Their brain receives information about their position in its surrounding space, it analyzes the signals “be careful, you are going to fall” and then sends new information to modify the position in this space.
After a few failures, the organism learns and the child is able to find their balance: the brain’s plasticity and feedback have allowed for learning to take place. A lifelong lesson has indeed been learned!
Neurofeedback is dependent on this simple principle, even though it remains complex on a cellular level.
How does Neurofeedback work?
In sleep labs, Neurofeedback is used as an innovative technique for cerebral learning, relying on thoughts to get to sleep: I think, so I’m cured!
A little background:
For quite some time, neurobiologists and doctors saw EEG as a simple tool for diagnosis, like a photograph of brain activity at a given instant in time. It took several years to understand that thought and brain activity alike had an obvious impact on brain patterns. The question then arose of whether thought could also be used to modify defective brainwaves.
The first case of Neurofeedback being used in therapy dates back to 1972, when used on a woman suffering from epilepsy. This marked the beginning of numerous clinical studies.
In 2009, the Dutch researcher Martijn Arns de la Brainsclinics (Nijmegen) demonstrated the benefits of the method on 1149 adults who were suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Many French researchers from Paris to Marseille continued to work on sleep disorders, and proved that neurofeedback could be used to repair sleep problems.
Basically, all you had to do was rewire the faulty electric circuits!
How do we use Neurofeedback?
As Neurofeedback relies on brain activity which can be recorded, it can only be used to explore brain activity in the superficial layers of the cortex.
In practice, this mainly corresponds to functions involving wakefulness and sleep, which is why it is of interest for treating attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and sleep disorders.
The neurosciences are making relentless progress; much research is also dedicated to autism and treating chronic pain.
Furthermore, we have already started exploring cerebral activity on a deeper level with functional MRI (fMRI). More powerful Neurofeedback tools based on fMRI are also in development.
How does Neurofeedback function with EEG?
Let’s take the example of a patient who has suffered a stroke. Cerebral lesions can lead to motor impairment, causing partial or complete paralysis of the arm. In this case, a physiotherapist will intervene and get the patient to do exercises to help them recover their mobility. These exercises will help them to partially rebuild neural pathways and signaling because of the brain’s plasticity.
The process is identical for Neurofeedback, except that we don’t focus on exercising the muscle, we focus directly on the brain.
Let’s take the example of an individual whose EEG shows excessive alpha waves (relaxation) and thêta waves (deep relaxation), with proportionally few bêta waves (wakefulness).
This is typical in individuals who have trouble concentrating and tend to have their head in the clouds.
The EEG allows us to make a diagnosis, but it will also allow us to see the results of treatment using Neurofeedback.
The patient will complete exercises to decrease their slow waves and increase their fast waves respectively. The EEG patterns and results will show the effects of their thoughts on their cerebral activity.
They will progressively learn to master the right waves by rewiring their brain activity in a way which is natural and becomes almost reflexive.
How does Neurofeedback work for sleep disorders?
The principle is exactly the same: targeted exercises help the patient to repair their sleep patterns by producing the right kinds of brainwaves.
One type of bêta (wakefulness) wave must be preserved though, because it is involved in inhibiting movement during sleep. We call these SMR waves (SensoriMotorRythm). If we have less SMR waves, our sleep will be easily disrupted and not restorative. This is where Neurofeedback comes in to help.
Neurofeedback is thus emerging as a natural solution for getting better sleep, as it allows us to restore our sleep patterns by teaching our brains to learn to sleep again. New technologies and connected objects have made this breakthrough possible. Although these solutions don’t replace sleep labs, the real analysis that can be done with simple sensors means rehabilitation can be done at home without sleeping pills, and we can start to enjoy good quality sleep once again.
Given the constant rise in sleeping disorders and the impact poor sleep has on people’s personal and professional lives, Neurofeedback is set to become popularized, and offer efficient long-term solutions to all.