One of the first applications of neurofeedback to change brain function – more than 50 years ago – was for controlling seizures. It was a study with cats. The incidence of seizures in the cats was dramatically reduced – and at times eliminated – by training their EEG (brain wave patterns). That prompted studies with humans that showed that seizures could be reduced with neurofeedback.
Though many years ago, long before the existence of sophisticated equipment and no “high technology,” the improvements observed in seizure activity in humans using neurofeedback was impressive. Over time, those improvements inspired nearly 20 peer-reviewed studies that have identified neurofeedback’s ability to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of seizures in both children and adults.
Conventional treatments often aren’t a good solution Even today, with all the advances in medical science, there are few effective conventional options to help seizure patients gain more control of their lives.
In cases where medications do control the seizures, they typically have side effects. They can cause disruptions in mood, sleep and cognition and increased anxiety. Surgery is an option for some people, but that’s typically a treatment of last resort.
With few good choices, neurofeedback just makes sense. It’s an evidence-based intervention with more than a half century of research and application – and it’s safe.
A European study in 2016 found that neurofeedback controlled seizures in two-thirds of 78 children with chronic seizures. Many children were able to stop taking seizure medication.
Why is neurofeedback typically not used by neurologists? For one thing, neurologists usually aren’t taught about neurofeedback in school. It’s simply not part of their toolbox. Secondly, the healthcare and insurance systems for the most part don’t cover non-medical interventions, even those that are evidence-based, like neurofeedback.
.See excerpts of an interview below with a neurologist who specializes in seizures and has incorporated neurofeedback into his practice as an adjunct to conventional seizure treatments.
The Center for Brain Training’s seizure program gets results
The Center for Brain Training’s seizure program has been getting consistent symptom improvement for our seizure patients for many years.
The extent of those improvements varies widely by individual. Some people stop having seizures altogether. Others see a reduction in the number and intensity of their seizures.
Happily, for many people, there are secondary benefits as well. As their brains stabilize, they often report sleeping better, experiencing improved mood, being able to think more clearly and making better decisions.
The Center for Brain Training’s seizure program is comprised of five parts:
Conduct a “network connectivity” brain map. This map (in technical terms a “multivariate connective analysis”) identifies the parts of the brain that are not communicating well, which research suggests contributes to electrical disturbances and seizures. The map is analyzed and interpreted by Dr. Robert Coben of Integrated Neuroscience Services, an affiliated researcher of New York University Medical Center. Why do we do this map? Each area of the brain must talk to the other parts in order to regulate activity. Current theories suggest that when there’s a lack of connectivity across networks, the brain’s electrical circuits can spin out of control. By training those circuits to improve, the brain becomes better able to regulate itself and remain better regulated. Using the connectivity map to pinpoint the problem areas allows us to produce faster results.
Look at an EEG of your brain activity. We share this information with a neuropsychologist or neurologist trained in neurofeedback who has specialized training in seizures. Together we review and refine training protocols and strategies.
Conduct an analysis of your lifestyle and environment. Lifestyle and environment can affect the brain. Among the components we look at are where you live, what sorts of things you’re exposed to (such as environmental toxins) and foods regularly eaten. Neurologists are often too consumed with their specialty area (the brain) to investigate the overall picture.
Discuss optional home equipment. In complicated cases, we may recommend a piece of equipment for use at home so you can have more intensive and more frequent training.
Offer optional “tune-ups” when necessary following completion of the training.While neurofeedback training frequently results in permanent changes, there may be times when a person needs to do more training several months or years after terminating the initial training in order to reinforce or enhance the changes.
Neurofeedback gave woman two-year relief from daily, devastating seizures
Sarah* was fascinated with the brain from the time she was a little girl. She remembers asking her father to buy her a set of headphones and a computer game she heard about where she could move digital boxes around on the screen by using her mind. “It was exciting to me that what I was doing was more than a game,” she recalled. “It was something that could actually improve my health.” Sarah never suspected back then that a dozen years later she’d be using neurofeedback, a similar, though much more sophisticated technology, to reduce daily seizures that began plaguing her in her mid-20s.
What causes seizures?
No one knows the cause of seizures. In some cases, according to current research, genetic mutations may be the culprit. Seizures can be prompted by an infection or by metabolic disorders or an imbalance in the brain. It could be from brain surgery or a concussion.
For neurofeedback practitioners, the cause makes no difference. Whatever the cause, our training goal is the same: to help the parts of the brain better communicate and to help the brain better regulate itself to reduce the abnormal activity that can trigger seizures.
How many sessions will it take for seizures to be under control? The number varies by individual. We’ve had clients who were seizure-free after 15 sessions and others who needed 40 or more for significant improvement. Most clients have experienced some sort of improvement after 10 or 15 sessions. This could mean better sleep, faster processing or noticeable improvements in seizure activity.
Three case histories
We saw an M.D. in his early 50s who had been experiencing seizures two years after being in an auto accident. He was taking two medications. They controlled his seizures but dulled and tired him to the point that he wasn’t able to work, had his driving privileges revoked and had to go on disability. He had a long history of anxiety and depression even before seizures. After 20 neurofeedback sessions he had stopped taking both medications (with his doctor’s guidance) and reported thinking more clearly and feeling more energetic and optimistic. He went to work running a foundation and got his driver license back.
A seven-year-old girl had up to 100 seizures per day despite being on several medications for seizures. After three months of neurofeedback training (including five days per week using home equipment) she became seizure-free. After four more months, her medications were significantly reduced and she began living a more normal life.
A 20-year-old woman had been on seizure medications for simple and partial seizures for a year and a half. They were causing her to have anxiety as well as memory problems. After concluding 20 sessions she was completely seizure-free and was able to terminate all her seizure medications.
A respected neurologist, Dr. Robert Turner, talks about why he offers neurofeedback to some of his seizure patients
As the benefits of neurofeedback are becoming better-known in medical circles, some medical doctors who specialize in treating epilepsy are including it in their toolbox. Here’s what one neurologist told us about why he added neurofeedback to his practice:
“It’s estimated that 65-70 million people worldwide have epilepsy and that about one-third of those don’t have their seizures under control.
That’s frustrating for me because as a medical doctor I wasn’t taught anything about ways to deal with seizures other than medications and surgery. When one medicine doesn’t do it, the typical approach is to try a second medicine, then a third.
I wasn’t happy with that, so I began investigating alternative options.
Hearing the word neurofeedback through the years, finally running into people I trust that knew about it, I decided to look more into it. Unfortunately, sometimes that term “alternative” carries a stigma and implies that it’s not evidence-based. Out of curiosity and desperation to be able to offer something different to my patients, I pursued it anyway. It turned out that the negatives I had heard could not have further from the truth. Neurofeedback has over 50 years of research backing up its efficacy.
I wondered, if neurofeedback is everything these people are saying, and it’s been around for decades, why is it not being used? That led me down the rabbit hole to an unbelievable expansion of what I call waking up from the Matrix (for those of you who have seen the original Matrix movie). I realized that there was a whole world of treatment options that most people weren’t aware of.
I began thinking, if our bodies can get healthier from changing what we do – exercising, eating better, managing stress, sleeping better – why not our brains? We know now, scientifically, over the last 20 years with the discovery of neuroplasticity that our brains can always change, no matter how old we are.
I did a lot of research and then did neurofeedback training on a lot of people in my quest to determine if neurofeedback was a viable option. Once I saw it change people’s lives, that was enough for me, and I added it to my practice.
Being able to offer neurofeedback as part of the overall health care I provide my patients has been transforming. As I watch many peoples’ lives change and get better I feel more like a healthcare provider than ever before in my career. Seeing patients and their lives change has been astounding.
–Robert Turner, M.D. Network Neurology Charleston, S.C.