Neurofeedback Is Not Just For Children

byDan Dinsmoor, Ph.D.

Neurofeedback is an intervention based on coding the electrical activity of the brain and visually feeding back information about the brain’s electrical functioning via simple video games and movies played back to the individual in real time on a screen in the therapy office. Though the person might not aware of it, this feedback information subtly “nudges” the brain to change its profile of brain wave activity which in turn generates more optimal neuropsychological functioning (improved attention, memory, mood, and self-regulation). For more general information concerning neurofeedback, please go to www.eeginfo.com.

In the treatment of children with neurofeedback often there is a fairly predictable sequence of changes that occur. In the first phase, we see improvements in the child’s self-regulation. Improvements in the child’s ability to self-regulate can be seen in quicker recovery from upsets when the child does have a meltdown, followed by less intense and less frequent meltdowns. As treatment proceeds, the child is no longer so readily triggered by things that used to be upsetting. The changes described frequently occur within the first ten sessions.

In the next phase, we often see that children typically become more responsive to parents’ direction and more capable of engaging in daily routines. They are in better sync with the family, and in better sync with what is going on around them. Parents report that children are better able to adapt to their surroundings and become on the whole more cooperative usually occurring during sessions 15-20. Finally, children enter a phase that is very nicely described as “light hearted” in which they seem less burdened and appear to enjoy life with markedly increased grace.

Strikingly, echoes of this sequence of changes also occur in the neurofeedback treatment of adults. As a therapist working with children, a good deal of my early work with parents occurred because the parent was also concerned about how their own self-regulation issues impacted the child. Parents recognized that their child’s difficulty regulating mood, attention and behavior in a variety of contexts was exacerbated by their own difficulty managing stress and mood related phenomena. With these parents, both moms and dads, their own neurofeedback treatment resulted in improvement in self-regulation relatively quickly. Parents reported that they were less irritable and also less abrupt with their children. Their sleep tended to improve as did the general mood of the family. Another important aspect of the treatment was that the kids seemed to appreciate having their parents participate in neurofeedback sessions at the same time. In some cases, this may have improved the parent-child bond as well as helping kids to understand that they were not the only source of the challenges in their family, but that a calmer environment was an overall family goal.

We also have experience with parents who come in for treatment of their own mental and physical health related problems after having made initial contact for treatment for their children. One example of this kind of case was a woman who saw me for the treatment of her migraines. With migraines, there is usually a predictable course of treatment despite the complexity of the underlying disorder. The tendency to have migraines can vary from person to person a great deal as can the type. There are “simple” migraine cases, and cases that are much more complicated to treat and appear to be somewhat difficult to change. However, over the course of neurofeedback treatment, we tend to see a reduction in severity and then reduction in the frequency of migraines fairly quickly. It typically takes about 20 sessions to reach maximum benefit, and periodic booster sessions may be required. Although not necessarily an easy treatment process, it is often worth it in intractable cases where standard medications, and other treatment approaches have not been effective.

Other parents come in for treatment of problems with anxiety. For example, I have seen two parents who have come in with symptoms of agoraphobia. In one case, the symptoms included the fear of traveling away from “safe areas” very close to home. In the second case, there was a broader discomfort with just going out at all. With agoraphobia there are frequently also co-occurring symptoms. Panic attacks are also common as well as depression and difficulty sleeping. While behavioral and cognitive interventions to address panic attacks are quite helpful, neurofeedback complements these approaches by intervening at the level of brain function.

Other parents I work with are seen for problems with sustained attention. As genetics plays a part in attention challenges some parents of children with attention challenges also present with similar difficulties as “the apple does not fall far from the tree”. While I work with the child at one neurofeedback station, the parent is typically working independently on another. This approach of simultaneously addressing the parent and the child’s attention challenges is especially productive. Positive virtuous cycles of change are created as the parent’s increased abilities positively improve the interaction with the child and this in turn helps the child do better, and vice versa.

We are also finding that neurofeedback can be helpful with complex medical problems in adults as it has been with children and adolescents. Some clients come to us with brain disorders, congenital anomalies or genetic disorders. In each of these cases, seizures are a part of the clinical picture. Neurofeedback directed at behavioral or cognitive problems with these clients also frequently results in improvement of their seizures.

Finally, a most effective (and cost-effective) approach is when the whole family (mom, dad, and child) receive neurofeedback at the same time. This is becoming more common and something that I really enjoy seeing happen. The child might be seen for cognitive or behavioral issues, but mom might find the neurofeedback to be helpful with energy levels, or mood, or just as something that is interesting to try. Dad may also find that the neurofeedback increases his energy level, and his ability to do work. The virtuous cycles of changes in one individual bringing change to the whole family are greatly increased when three individuals are simultaneously working to address their challenges. Importantly, there is no additional fee when a parent or sibling is seen in conjunction with a child as this is charged as one session of family therapy.

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