For 40 years, EEG brainwave biofeedback or simply “neurofeedback” has been researched and used to treat a wide range of problems, including seizure disorders, hyperactivity and ADD, learning disabilities as well as Autism and the related ASD conditions. Clients learn how to control brainwave activity to promote emotional and social self-control and connection, cognitive function, and general well-being. Leading practitioners of clinical Neurofeedback, utilizing the latest methods, are seeing a 50% reduction in ASD symptoms in approximately 45 hours of treatment. Longer treatment shows a commensurate reduction in remaining symptoms. Neurofeedback is safe and non-invasive, and in the right hands, highly effective.
EEG measures the brain’s electrical activity via the use of electronic sensors, much like microphones that amplify the brains electric signals detectable at the scalp. The signal is transferred to a computer for analysis and display. We look for specific patterns in the brainwave activity as it moves up or down due to voltage fluctuations; this is how neurologists look for seizure activity. The unit of measurement for brainwaves became the number of fluctuations of electrical voltage per second, known as the hertz, also know as a brainwave “frequency”. This “frequency spectrum” from 1 to 40 hertz gives us an interpretive framework to observe what is occurring in the brain. The lower the number of hertz, the slower the brainwave activity, and the more this activity is associated with sleep, lethargy, or inactivity. In this way, we can detect when a certain part of the brain is largely “off-line”, under-aroused or just not working well. The higher the frequency activity, the more we expect to see high mental energy, stamina and ability, and if excessive, anxiety, rumination, repetitive behaviors, toxic reactions, and emotional melt-downs.
The practice of neurofeedback or “NFB”, stayed within the university laboratory for years due to the cost of computing power. When more powerful personal computers appeared, graphic displays and video games became linked to the feedback process. When the client was creating the correct brainwaves a tone would be triggered or the visual display would indicate success. This idea has been extended by linking up the playing of a DVD movie, or a client’s favorite music CD, to creating the desired brainwaves for a set period of time; if the wrong brainwaves are created, the CD, DVD or animation dims, drops in volume, or stops until the correct brainwaves return. A sort of negative reinforcement (doing things to avoid the loss of a rewarding stimulus or activity) is utilized. Some ASD children are initially too hyperaroused to keep electrode sensors on or focus in on a video game task. For those clients, a newer type of Neurofeedback that requires little or no attention or cooperation allows us to stabilize brain activity to the point where more traditional NFB techniques can be used.
By taking up to 19 sensor readings of the brain at once, we build a comprehensive picture or “map” of the brain as a whole. The client’s brain activity can be compared with subjects of the same age and gender; this is known as a normative database. The statistical or “quantitative” techniques used to analyze the data gave rise to the term Quantitative EEG or “QEEG”.
More complex and challenging cases such as the ASDs typically require some form of brain mapping to guide the treatment planning process in a safe and optimally efficient fashion. In a QEEG report, we see two main types of EEG data: amplitude information and connectivity information.
Amplitude information refers to the distribution of bioelectrical energy or voltage within the brain. When a given area of the brain has too much voltage or is “over-aroused”, we see a loss of brain efficiency and flexibility. On the other hand, certain parts of the brain can be under-aroused and hence “off-line”, not available to help with the task at hand. NFB amplitude training is designed to normalize and balance out these over and under arousal problems, critical to emotion and basic attention self-control. Amplitude information is combined with information about how the different parts of the brain work together and cooperate, which leads to the next general category of QEEG assessment.
Connectivity metrics measure the amount of communication or information shared between two or more parts of the brain as well as the precise coordination and timing of information transfer between two sites. Brains can be over-connected or under-connected. In the case of over-connection, the affected area acts in lockstep or in an inflexible, rigid, stereotypic manner. Interestingly, clinical conditions such as autism are notorious for exhibiting a complex mix of over and under-connected brain connection pathways. Connectivity assessment and re-training are often the key to helping a brain recover from autistic spectrum conditions, quickly and completely.
Neurofeedback is not a substitute for ABA or social treatment approaches, but it does make these behavioral interventions more effective, and makes its own unique and powerful contributions. We have seen nonverbal ASD patients begin to use language. We have seen them make eye contact and increase their socialization dramatically. We have seen dramatic shifts in language and emotional/social well-being. The improvements with ASD clients are among the most remarkable results seen in the 20 year history of providing Neurofeedback therapy in outpatient, non-laboratory settings.