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What is neurofeedback? Video game-like therapy being used to treat anxiety, ADHD and more

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 8:11 AM EDT
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It’s like a gym for your brain.

As issues like anxiety, depression and restless sleep have spiked during the pandemic, some people are turning to neurofeedback, a kind of gym for the brain. It’s a method that practitioners and some clients say can improve symptoms associated with everything from concussions to ADHD.

In a nutshell, if you were to map a person’s brain, you would find regions that are closely associated with different functions. The dozens of different areas help with emotions, verbal memory, or impulsivity to name a few. Each person’s brain will have strengths and weaknesses in the circuitry of and electricity that fires within the different regions.

In neurofeedback, the practitioner hooks sensors to top of a person’s head, over the regions where the person wishes to improve function. The person will watch a screen where an animation will pop up, similar to a video game. Then, the brain does the work. The computer responds to what happens inside the circuitry of the brain, making positive movements when it’s a good step, and slowing down or stopping when it’s not.

"The computer can tell him when his brain is doing a good job at increasing patterns that help chill out his brain," explained Michael Cohen, Director and Chief of Neurotechnology for the Center for Brain Training in Jupiter, Florida, while working with patient Aidan Pepitone.

Two years ago, Pepitone was struggling with anxiety and other challenges that diminished his enjoyment of daily life. He says he was living in a shattered reality, afraid to leave his room.

“It was like a car, it was running at high RPMs all the time without me doing anything,” Pepitone explained.

Pepitone credits neurofeedback with a significant, gradual improvement in his brain function that transformed his life. He watches the screen’s images move forward when his brain circuitry operates in the desired way.

“If you want to help somebody learn to calm themselves, and you can have them increase certain neurons firing over the part of their brain that makes them less anxious, you can become less anxious,” Cohen explained.

Carli Streich is the owner and CEO of Braincode Centers in Denver. She suggests the step of creating a "brain map" may help to increase the positive outcomes of the treatment.

“We use a brain map to really figure out why are you experiencing those symptoms? Why have you developed this diagnosis for lack of a better word, of anxiety, depression, cognitive delay, behavioral disorders, ADHD, all of those types of things.”

Streich’s clients range from children with an ADHD diagnosis to retired athletes who have suffered concussions or traumatic brain injury. Others, she says, just want to improve the function of their daily lives and ability to focus or sleep. Streich herself battled debilitating anxiety.

“There's no way in the world I could even sit and talk to you without having like my heart racing,” she explained.

She says she found neurofeedback through a friend, and now considers it one of the biggest blessings in her life. After experiencing the improvements, she opened her own practice.

“I also had quite a few panic attacks during that time where I would go to the emergency room or urgent care because I genuinely thought like this is definitely the end. And I haven't had that happen,” she explained.

Streich says, neurofeedback can fit like a puzzle piece with other therapies. Sometimes it’s a big piece, other times a small one.

“Yeah, we are firm believers in treating the body holistically. We believe that we are an important piece to the puzzle. But we are just that a piece to the puzzle of somebody's health,” she said.

Cohen agrees. He’s now partnering up with Dr. John Deluca, an internist and rehabilitation doctor, to broaden the Brain Rehabilitation Center this summer. Cohen’s personal passion stems from watching his own father battle severe depression, and find relief through neurofeedback.

“Pills help you deal with your symptoms, but neurofeedback is like a gym, it helps you strengthen those circuits, it helps you start functioning better, just like if you go to a gym,” he said.

Cohen calls some of the results he’s seen “remarkable.”

Practitioners and researchers say, the length of time a person might feel relief from symptoms, and to what degree, is varied. Some insurance will cover neurofeedback, but not all. Those who have had improvements often return periodically to “brush up” and remind the brain what to do.

Pepitone is grateful his life has turned around, and that he can now work again as a technical director in a church, doing what he loves.

“I feel like God brought me here to help with that, to help with that process,” he explained.

Scripps Only Content 2021