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Neurofeedback therapy is a treatment method for brain disorders that measures a patient’s brainwaves in order to adjust them. This adjustment is aimed at treating the underlying illness within the patient’s central nervous system. There are two general types of neurofeedback therapy — passive and active. The difference between the passive and active types of neurofeedback therapy lies in the patient’s degree of participation in the process.
Passive neurofeedback therapy typically uses a device that sends low-energy radio waves to the patient’s brain and measures the waves that return, making it a two-way system. The patient’s brain automatically senses the disruption to its normal processing of signals and readjusts, creating what therapists hope are better, more efficient pathways. The patient must undergo multiple sessions to measure his or her brainwaves, and optimum settings are discovered to treat the illness. A popular type of this therapy is known as the Low Energy Neurofeedback System (LENS).
Active neurofeedback therapy is also believed to rewire the patient’s brain with active help supplied by the patient. By learning to focus intensely on a specific stimulus, patients are thought to gain more control over their minds and break the harmful thought patterns that troubled them in the past. During the therapy process, the patient’s scalp is fitted with electrodes wired to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that sorts, measures and records the various types of brainwaves produced in the central nervous system.
One form of active therapy has the patient control a video game of sorts that responds to the beta waves produced by intense concentration. As the patient focuses on the game, the number of these waves grows, and the number of theta waves associated with daydreaming and sleepiness diminishes. One or more therapists are on hand to provide positive reinforcement as the patient demonstrates greater mastery over his or her ability to concentrate. The game-like setup is not the only method used; therapists employ all kinds of visual and audio stimuli to help hold the patient’s attention.
Neurofeedback therapy has notably been used to treat Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It has also been used to help those struggling with addiction and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, problems that are typically treated with medication. Proponents of neurofeedback therapy also believe it can help patients suffering from epilepsy and sleep disorders, as well as those recovering from strokes and head injuries. The therapy's strongest supporters believe it can produce the sort of brainwaves typically associated with drug therapy, thus reducing the need for medication.
Some doctors have raised questions about neurofeedback treatment, arguing there has not been sufficient research to prove its effectiveness. Others argue it can complement but not replace drug therapy. Despite encouraging data, neurofeedback therapy is still a less-common way to treat central nervous system problems, often because of expense. Whether the neurofeedback therapy treatment is passive or active, doctors typically have the patient undergo 20 to 40 sessions, a regimen that can prove expensive when compared to the cost of prescription drugs.
Neurofeedback therapy dates back to the 1960s, when researchers at the University of Chicago and UCLA discovered that their test subjects’ degrees of relaxation were associated with the frequency of certain brain waves. Beta waves are the fastest, suggesting the most hectic brain activity, while alpha waves indicated calmer, more reflective states. Theta waves are even slower than alpha waves and visible in drowsy subjects. Delta waves are the slowest of all, and often associated with deep sleep.