Neuro-feedback – Business Day, By Mandy Collins
Commented on by Justine Loewenthal
Registered Counsellor and EEG Technician
They say it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind, but now there's a therapy that can help all of us to do just that – with some stunning results. Neuro-feedback, or neurotherapy – can literally change the way our brains work and sort out a host of emotional and psychological problems, and even help with stress, insomnia and epilepsy.
Justine Loewenthal is a neuro-feedback therapist in Johannesburg, and says while neuro-feedback is not a new intervention, the field has expanded exponentially since the first research was conducted at UCLA in 1968, especially in the last decade. And it has been available in South Africa for about nine years.
"Neuro-feedback is brainwave biofeedback," explains Loewenthal. "It uses a process of operant conditioning to allow a person to change their own brainwave patterns by being constantly fed back information regarding the state of their brain. This is in the form of auditory and visual feedback. The brain is rewarded every time it makes more of certain types of brainwave activity and less of others."
Essentially, she says, neuro-feedback training is like taking the brain to gym. However, instead of exercising muscles, the client exercises the pathways involved in sleep, cognition, attention, learning, mood and behaviour. When these areas of the brain and the intricate pathways that connect them function the way they should, the symptoms improve or disappear.
Cape Town practitioner Kerry Swarts of Brain Harmonics elaborates: "It's a process of showing your brain real time information which tells your brain how fast or slow it is pulsing and what kind of patterns you are stuck in. Most people can learn to change brain wave patterns with neuro-feedback equipment.
"Many conditions such as stress, sleep problems, depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD), brain injury, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, epilepsy, low energy, low immune system, memory problems, obsessive thinking, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and unresolved emotional issues (eg. anger, unhappiness) respond well to treatment." The therapy is run via quantitative EEGs (QEEGs), which Loewenthal says have revolutionised the practice of neuro-feedback. Electrodes are placed on the client's head to read the electrical activity produced in the area being monitored, and are held in place with paste to conduct the electrical signal. This information is fed into a brainwave amplifier connected to the therapist's computer.
On the therapist's computer, the client's EEG is displayed. Frequencies are distinguished from one another so that the force of each frequency may be easily tracked over a period of time. The therapist's computer is connected to another computer which displays the client's EEG in the form of games. The client 'plays' these games solely with their brainwaves – their attentiveness controls what happens on the screen. "The better the attention, the more rewards will be earned and the faster the activity on the screen," says Loewenthal "In this way, the client constantly receives information about what is happening in their brain and can change it. After practising this over a period of time, the computer feedback is no longer needed."
Adds Swarts: "Your brain doesn't want to be stuck in patterns that don't serve you and your brain then balances itself. It learns to shift from slow to fast states smoothly and easily and stay in each as long as is needed. As the brain practises the tasks set for it, it grows stronger, in the same way that an exercised muscle grows stronger. This enhanced brain now has the ability to react more quickly and appropriately to a given situation.
"There are no tricks or techniques, no subliminal messages and no input – your brain changes itself. You don't have to think about it or try – your brain gets the feedback and moves in the desired direction itself."
A typical session takes 30 minutes, although for young children it may be substantially shorter. Even after the first session, both therapists say that many clients report effects such as improved anxiety, better quality sleep, lighter mood and reduced somatic complaints like headaches.
"The number of sessions is worked out depending on what we need to achieve but on average 12 to 18 hours is enough time for most people to develop new neural pathways and make them strong enough to not go back to old patterning," says Swarts. "About 70% of my clients have been very happy with 12 hours."
"The brain training needs enough hours to create new neural pathways and then make them strong enough so that the brain will not go back to old patterning," adds Loewenthal. "Once this new patterning is retained, this then becomes normal. Each client presents with a different case and therefore the exact number of sessions cannot be predicted. For there to be consistent and lasting change, the brain needs to learn and relearn and relearn the new patterns of brainwaves. A mild sleep disorder may be resolved in 20 sessions, whereas epilepsy may take in excess of 100 sessions to bring under control."
Loewenthal stresses that it's important to check your neuro-feedback practitioner's credentials: "Unfortunately, some neurotherapy equipment is available over the Internet and neuro-therapy is being practised by 'housewives' with no knowledge of the brain or insight into the potential damage that they can do without the proper training and knowledge about neurotherapy," she says.
"Only professionals with the proper registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa may practise neuro-feedback, eg. psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, medical doctors. They may only practise within the scope of their registration.
"Properly trained and qualified practitioners belong to the Neurotherapy Association of Africa (NAA). The NAA is dedicated to professionalism and growth within this field and therefore arranges for some of the well-respected experts in the field to come to South Africa to present courses to those properly registered with the NAA. Courses are also presented overseas." If you need to check out your practitioner, you can simply contact the NAA's secretary on firstname.lastname@example.org.
She adds that some of the practitioners registered with the NAA are also affiliates of EEG Spectrum International and receive daily updates regarding cutting-edge research and case discussions. Some therapists are also trained in peak performance training and assist top sports people and business people. We are all very aware of the need to train our bodies for peak performance, but perhaps it's time we put some effort into training our brains – the possibilities, it seems, are endless.