Teaching the well-known brainwave in humans, the alpha rhythm, can strengthen a brain network in charge of cognitive-control. This technique, known as neurofeedback, may be considered as a hopeful new procedure for reestablishing brain function in mental disorders.

This breakthrough study, conducted by a group of researchers at the Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute, has discovered that functional changes within a specific brain network occur exactly after a 30-minute session of noninvasive, neural-based training.

Problems with this cognitive-control network has been indicated in a range of brain disorders such as ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Previous studies have suggest neurofeedback as an effective treatment for ADHD, targeting impulse control and attention issues.

Users engaging in neurofeedback can learn how to control their own brain activity with the aid of a brain-computer interface. In a basic form, this consists of a computer that records brainwaves through surface sensors on the scalp, known as an EEG (electroencephalogram). The system then processes and represents, at the same time, a user’s true brain activity, displayed from moment-to-moment during a teaching game on a computer.

This set-up is called a neurofeedback loop, because information of brain activity is always fed-back to a user showing their level of control. Real-time feedback lets users remake certain brain states under physiologically-regular conditions, assuring an innovative way to promote brain changes without harmful effects.

This is feasible because of nueroplasticity, a regular property of the brain that enables it to restructure after repeated training, coming from changes to its own activity.

These findings answer a question that has long been wondered about: Can neurofeedback training cause any brain changes at all?

Tomas Ros, PhD, lead author of the study, now at University of Geneva, says:

“The effects we observed were durable enough to be detected with functional MRI up to 30 minutes after a session of neurofeedback which allowed us to compare brain and behavioral measures more closely in time. We were excited to find that increased metabolic coupling within a key cognitive network was reflected in the individual level of brainwave change provoked by neurofeedback.

The same measures were found to be tightly correlated with reductions in mind-wandering during an attention task. Amazingly, this would imply that the brain’s function may be entrained in a direction that is more attentive and quiet.”

Building on past research, Ros believes their results verify the ability of the brain to mold, showing how past activity of more than 30 minutes ago can determine its future state of processing. This study is a direct example.

Senior author Dr. Ruth Lanius, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a scientist with Lawson Health Research Institute adds:

“Compared to the lack of significant findings in the control group that received training with false feedback, our findings are unambiguously supportive of a direct and plastic impact of neurofeedback on a central cognitive-control network, suggesting a promising basis for its use to treat cognitive disorders.”

The authors hope these promising results will encourage more research by scientists in the area of EEG neurofeedback as a viable option to treat brain disorders. They plan on testing their conclusions further in the clinical domain by seeing if post-traumatic stress disorder patients gain advantages from these findings.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald