We’ve all seen color-coded GPS traffic maps: a bright red road means traffic is bumper-to-bumper, while blue indicates a fast drive. Now, a therapy called quantitative electroencephalography-based neurofeedback (fortunately abbreviated as QEEG-based neurofeedback) is bringing similar mapping to the heavily trafficked human brain. Although relatively unknown, I believe it is a safe and promising therapy for certain mental problems, such as mild to moderate depression. I hope these Q&As shed light on a potentially useful new treatment.
What does QEEG-based neurofeedback therapy look like?
It turns out that we have a much greater ability to control our nervous system than most people realize. I have long prescribed a simpler technique called biofeedback, in which sensors in, say, the lower back provide feedback such as an audio tone. Patients can learn to lower their tone by relaxing chronically tight muscles, which relieves their pain. Researchers have identified normal brain wave patterns and found that in mental disorders, brain waves can deviate from these norms. In a typical session of QEEG-based neurofeedback for depression, a patient wears a sensory cap, looks at a screen, and attempts to alter the image (and sometimes tone) so that brain activity matches patterns more normal. The length of treatment varies, but a clinic may recommend between five and twenty 35-minute sessions.
How does the technology work?
It’s based on the century-old science of electroencephalography, which uses sensors to pick up subtle electrical activity in the brain. In years past, analog “doodles” were tracked on moving paper, but now it’s digital. Up to 21 sensors can be embedded in the cap to read the brain’s electrical patterns, which are then mathematically combined to create color-coded “maps” of brain activity.
How is QEEG-based neurofeedback used in real life?
Evidence suggests that clinicians can diagnose brain disorders by comparing a patient’s readings with a database of other scans. Combined with neurofeedback, the technology ranges from diagnostic to therapeutic. For example, a review of 30 studies found a “small to medium” effect in alleviating ADHD, a “larger” effect in alleviating autism spectrum disorders, and a “large” positive effect against depression.
Are there any risks?
In my opinion, if you have struggled with depression, there is little harm and great potential for improvement with QEEG-based neurofeedback. Especially for mild to moderate depression, it’s often a better first approach than potentially dangerous and less effective drugs.
How to find a supplier?
First, discuss treatment options with your primary care physician or mental health care provider. If you decide to try QEEG-based neurofeedback, look for a clinic certified by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance.
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