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Alice In Neuroland

Note by Michael Cohen, Director, Center for Brain Training

“Psychotherapy Networker is widely read by psychotherapists around the US. At the time, I was one of the instructors for the course at EEG Spectrum that Katy Butler attended. She wrote a terrific article that helped educate and encourage many therapists about Neurofeedback. Here are some of the excerpts from her article. You may purchase the full article online from Psychotherapy Networker for $2.50

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Alice In Neuroland

Can machines teach us to be more human?
Published in Psychotherapy Networker, Sept/Oct 2005
By Katy Butler.

Networker Features Editor Katy Butler was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2004. She’s written for the New Yorker and The New York Times, and teaches memoir writing at the Esalen Institute each fall.

Excerpts from the article:

… For the next six minutes, Marcia, without moving a muscle, will try to keep Pacman running through a maze, simply by firing her neurons fast enough to make the computer beep. When she’s too tense, the beeping stops and Pacman goes dark. When she withdraws or daydreams, too many of her brain waves enter the slow, theta range (firing only four to seven times per second), and the beeping stops again. But the laptop is configured so that when she’s in a sweet spot—calm yet focused, with neurons firing away on the right side of her brain at 12 to 15 times per second—Pacman gobbles away and the beeping is continuous. At tables all around us, other therapists . . . are staring into similar screens, and the air fills with a syncopated, off-rhythm chorus of electronic beeps.

… Neurons close to the surface of her skull will, we hope, come to fire in slower, calmer rhythms. They, in turn, should entrain other neurons deeper in her brain, relaying their calming influence from her cortex to her thalamus, which helps govern physiological regulation. The fleeting, repeated, bio-electro-chemical patterns of neural functioning that Marcia calls mild anxiety—once thought to be hard wired by temperament, early childhood development, and fate—are turning out to be malleable after all.

Neurofeedback is not new. It was first explored in the late 1960s in southern California, a hardheaded neuroscience researcher named Barry Sterman (now retired from UCLA’s school of medicine) was accidentally discovering that generating brain waves in slightly faster rhythms could do something perhaps more miraculous: it could make the brains of cats highly resistant to epileptic seizures.

An intervention so simple and subtle that even a cat could do it—involving no drugs, therapy, or surgery—had changed how neurons communicated… early proof of what scientists now call neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reshape itself physically.

Five years later, Sterman hooked up a severely epileptic Veterans Administration lab tech to a clunky EEG biofeedback device that blinked a green light at her whenever her brain waves fell into SMR. After 24 sessions over three months, the tech, Mary Fairbanks, reduced her thrice-monthly seizures virtually to zero, recovering enough to get a driver’s license.

… According to a survey of the scientific literature by Sterman published in Clinical Encephalography in 2000, at least 166 medication-resistant epileptics have since been trained with neurofeedback, reducing their seizures on average by 50 percent.

In the next couple of sessions, I noticed that when the beeps stopped, I was usually monitoring and grading my performance… After sessions four and five, I left the office feeling calm and buoyant… My shift in mood was so palpable that my mate noticed it immediately when I walked in our door. I touched his hand and, for the first time since we’d met, mine was warmer… mostly I’d oscillated between two modes—alert-but-clenched or relaxed-but-in-a-dream. I hadn’t known how to be calm and alert at the same time, and I hadn’t even considered that possibility as a goal. This stuff works, I thought. It isn’t rocket science. Why isn’t there a room of these machines in every school!?

In 2000, psychologist Laurence Hirshberg, an assistant professor in clinical psychiatry at Brown University, returned from neurofeedback training to a Providence, Rhode Island, psychology practice full of children with AD/HD and autism spectrum disorder… “Part of the problem with this field is that the stories are so amazing that nobody believes them. I’m trying not to sound like a wild man,” says Hirshberg, who guest-edited a major positive review of neurofeedback research for the January 2005 volume of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America.

The treatment, Hirshberg adds, has transformed his understanding of the neurological substrates of some disorders he once considered primarily psychological. “You take a child with reactive attachment disorder who’s struggled for years with expressing any feeling of warmth and affection. You do five or six [neurofeedback] sessions, and, suddenly, the parents report, ‘O my God, he’s showing warmth and affection.’ He sits next to them on the couch, he smiles. . . .“Or take a child with autism. A mother may report something as mundane as her child’s recognizing that she’s carrying bags of groceries and holding the door open for her. This relatively innocuous intervention certainly suggests there’s a primary contribution from the brain.”

In April, after 10 neurofeedback sessions with neuropsychologist Christine Kraus, my brother called and said, “Something just went snap.” He’d awoken alert and had functioned all day on a single cup of coffee, rather than downing four or five cups without ever really getting out of a fog. He was less anxious. He could go to the next room for a tool and come back with it, instead of getting lost in another half-finished project. The effect held the next day, and the next, and the next.”

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