Biofeedback & Neurofeedback at the Vancouver Olympics 2010 Canada’s top secret initiative involved the use of the latest in high-tech training. The biggest secret was the use of Biofeedback and Neurofeedback to train athletes to develop the ability to rapidly switch between a relaxed state and a super-focused state without wasting any physiological resources. Marge Dupee from the University of Ottawa discusses how effective this training was in enabling Alexandre Bilodeau, Jennifer Heil and others to win gold, silver and bronze medals. The equipment they used was from Thought Technology of Montreal, the same equipment used in professional sports clubs such as AC Milan, Chelsea, Skate Canada and the Vancouver Canucks, where the system is called Mindroom (mindroomsportscience.com). This equipment also monitored David Blaine while frozen in ice and has been used extensively by NASA in preparation for Space Exploration.
See bottom of page for Wall Street Journal on the World Cup.
Below this piece are a few articles written about neurofeedback which have appeared in the popular press.
As we start this New Year I wanted to bring you some cheerful news of how neurofeedback training in the context of Bowen theory was introduced, with positive results, to several people in Pittsburgh. I was able to offer these sessions due to the interest, perseverance and work of Catherine Rakow. She was supported by Jim Smith, the current director of WPFC People were offered two sessions a day, or even four sessions over two days, so they could experience intensive training. Perhaps it is like increasing the time you spend at the gym or in my case, at hot yoga. One difference, however, is at this gym you simply calm down to become mentally stronger.
By calming down one is able to better observe the difference between one’s feelings and one’s thinking.
Bowen wrote in the book Family Evaluation - ” The human is the first form of life that has been able to observe the feeling process with his intellect. Thus far there are definite characteristics of those who can do this readily, and those who are a few years slower. The name of that is differentiation of self. Everyone can do that when they are more motivated to do it for themselves rather than when they are dependent on others. There is some evidence that the human can determine the functioning of his own emotional system through the control of his own emotionality. It goes in the direction of implying that the human can control his own evolution thought the control of his own emotional system.” (Pages 385-386)
It was great fun for me to be there because the people in the Pittsburgh group are among my earliest colleagues. Back in the eighties I drove Dr. Bowen to conferences sponsored by the WPFC. I’ve constantly found the people there courageous and forward thinking, perhaps influenced by the founder of the Western Pennsylvania Family Center, Paulina G. McCullough. Among other firsts, Paulina was one of the first people to work with Murray Bowen at Georgetown University back in the sixties, and the first to start a network program in Family Systems Theory, despite Bowen himself being dubious about the chances for the network’s success.
The main goal of the neurofeedback sessions was to give people enough of an experience on the equipment to see if neurofeedback was useful to them. There are many ways to manage self and control anxiety. Neurofeedback is one more tool for people who believe in the mind-body connection. The training allows your brain to find more comfortable electrical pathways through a slight interruption in the old patterns. When an interruption occurs, the music stops momentarily, alerting us to a change. The change is noted and we relax, as there is nothing to fear.
Over time the training allows for increasing diversity and coherence to appear in the brain. It’s as though the software is designed to bring an individual “back to the present”, to relax and experience increasing comfort. This neurofeedback system is not diagnostic. Training is the same whether the individual’s focus is on sports performance or just relaxing.
From a family systems perspective, I believe that it is accurate to hypothesize that the brain wave patterns in a family are mutually influencing one another. This keeps the anxiety between family members highly correlated. So when there is a change in one person that can be sustained over time, this change in one individual allows for slight changes in the way several people in the family relate to one another.
The training can produce slow changes, similar to the way one changes by working out at a gym. When one person in the family increases his or her flexibility, others in the family can be impacted. The goal is to alter or slow down participation in the automatic way we relate to one another. Any increase in self-focus can impact the reactivity in one’s important relationships.
After the two days we sent out the following questions to the participants, looking for some feedback about the usefulness of the two days of training. All of the participants in the neurofeedback sessions have been clinicians using Bowen Theory and/or have known about Bowen Theory for years.
QUESTIONS SENT TO PARTICIPANTS
It would be helpful to me as the organizer, and to Andrea as the coach, if you would send along some of your afterthoughts on the experience of this weekend in these areas: 1) the experience of using neurofeedback, 2) the lunch time discussions, 3) any thoughts or interests for the future.
Highlights from various participants:
1) One reported experiencing a shifting perception of time;
2) Another reported reorganizing an office that had been on the “perhaps I will do it later” list;
3) An individual with PTSD reported being able to have a calm couple of days;
4) The swelling in the hand of one individual was reduced;
5) A mother was able to let her son talk about how he would deal with his issues without her getting involved.
6) And Rebecca Blackwood, another participant, wrote up her experience for a blog and offered to make her thoughts available here.
The day after the brainwave training, I did write a post for my private blog (for family/friends). I thought I’d pass along what I wrote. Also, I’m wondering if anyone stepped up to purchase the software/technology for Pittsburgh? I would love to do it again!
Yesterday, I had my first brainwave training session. How many times in our lives do we get to do that on a Sunday afternoon?!?
The sessions took place at the Western Pennsylvania Family Center. Several of the people getting the brainwave training sessions gathered together for lunch yesterday and we were able to discuss questions and get more information.
The brainwave coach was Andrea Schara. She came up from Washington D.C. for a couple of days. As an aside, she also keeps an informative and inspirational blog called Ideas to Action: How Understanding Your Family System Can Change Your Life. I immediately felt comfortable around Andrea. She said that she is 70 years old, she has a loud, contagious laugh and goodness, she knows a lot. She studied at the Georgetown Bowen Center and also worked there for many years. Bowen family systems theory is what I am studying in my supervision with Wendy, as I work toward getting the clinical license of social work.
So, back to the brainwave training. The equipment that Andrea used is the Zengar Neuroptimal Brain-Training Technology and software. From the Zengar website:
“Through a series of sessions with the NeurOptimal® brain training system, your brain reorganizes itself and functions more effectively. When your brain functions efficiently, you feel more integrated and whole and your body functions better. After training with NeurOptimal® many people experience less stress, greater flow, improved academic, athletic, creative and work performance as well as more confidence and joy. Many bodily complaints drop away.”
A helpful comparison that Andrea made is to picture learning how to ride a bike. Our body has a way of figuring out how to balance and keep moving as we ride a bike. It is not like we have to cognitively tell ourselves, lean right, now left, keep moving. Instead, our body knows how to wire itself to be able to ride the bike. Similarly, when our brain is being monitored and we are able to observe what is happening, our brain can begin to automatically reorganize and balance itself. We don’t have to say, “stop thinking those thoughts, or slow down”. We can instead utilize the technology to let our brains do this on its own. The steps that occurred in my session (again from the Zengar website):
1. Sit in a comfortable chair; 2. Trainer places sensors on me; 3. Trainer records a baseline of my brain “activity”; 4. Training session starts; 5. I totally relax, listen to music or watch a movie; 6. Training ends and Trainer may record a second baseline; 7. Trainer removes sensors; 8. Discussion.
During the session, there was new-agey kind of music playing and I also had the option to watch visual representations of what was happening in my brain during the session. She and I noticed that my left brain (logical side) was way more dominant at the beginning of the training. Eventually, the right brain became a bit more active and the two sides of my brain began to “dance”, as she called it. Absolutely fascinating.
I had a variety of thoughts while in the session:
“Am I doing this right?”
“I wonder how other people’s brainwaves compare to mine”
“Take a deep breath”
“Am I doing this right?”
Andrea kept pointing out that similar to Bowen theory, the goal is to become an observer, to be neutral, to be aware, not to get answers and to judge. This is difficult to do.
Andrea took a baseline screening before and after the session. My pre-screening indicated that I had almost no alpha and was pretty jagged. My post screening had alpha* present and was much calmer and smoother.
Other interesting information that I’m taking away from this experience:
· *What is alpha? From Andrea’s Blog: “Alpha states appear to re-tune the mind by calming the body and allowing the mind to be free.” People with drug addiction often do not have alpha available. This is one reason they are constantly seeking a substance to create a calmer state in their brains.
· Children with Attention Deficit Disorder have slower brainwaves, which is why they often appear hyper. They have to quickly interact with the world, to wake up, because their brains are moving too slowly. This is why they are prescribed stimulants, which strangely slows down their interactions with the world because the “drugs” speed up their brains. I hope I’m describing this correctly…I started taking notes after she had already explained this concept.
· When we spend time with small children, we tend to sync our brainwaves with their slower moving brain waves. This is one reason we often get tired and drained after spending time with small children. We are slowing down towards sleep. Interestingly, television can influence our brainwaves the same way. This may be a reason why when parents stick their kids in front of a television, they slow down. Interesting, but also a bit scary!
· The brainwave training session can be compared to meditation. The difference is that you are able to see a visual representation of how the electrical energy in your brain is relaxing by seeing itself.
· During the session, I asked Andrea how other people’s brainwaves compare to mine and she wondered if I often compare myself to others. She asked if I have an older sister, who I was always competing with and I told her, “No, but I have a twin and he and I used to compete at different things.” Big mental note on something to be aware of: How often do I compare myself to others?
· Deep breathing, closing our eyes, and doing other grounding exercises will immediately calm down our brain.
· I felt warm and relaxed after my hour-long session. Maybe it is my imagination, but my thoughts also seemed to have more clarity. And, I swear I slept better last night.
The brainwave technology is expensive (see Zengar.com). The closest places to get the brainwave training are Cleveland and Carlisle, PA. Currently, the software is not being used in Pittsburgh. Insurance does not covers brainwave training, which is also a downfall. There are neurofeedback TREATMENTS that are covered by some insurance but this was training the brain not treating the brain. But, who knows? Maybe this will become a popular form of training in the future and that would bring the cost down. It seemed pretty effective to me and I was pretty skeptical going in. Rebecca Blackwood
Following are a two articles that have been published about uses of neurofeedback.
Wall Street Journal
July 29, 2006; Page P1
Italy‘s World Cup-winning soccer team have done it. A starting quarterback in the NFL has tried it out. And so has Jordan Kreuter, an 18-year-old golfer in
The thing they have in common: They’ve all turned to neurofeedback, a technique that promises to help athletes reprogram their brains so they can reach a zone of relaxed concentration during clutch situations.
Long used to treat medical conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy and dementia, it is beginning to emerge as a tool for pro and amateur athletes alike — with neurofeedback machines even starting to show up at some local public golf courses.
[Photo of the Italian soccer team]
Mind Games: Several members of
Italy‘s World Cup-winning team, including Andrea Pirlo, second from lower left, did extensive neurofeedback in the runup to the tournament.
This technique is bringing some science to the mental side of athletics, a field also known as sports psychology, which has often been derided by many players and trainers as hokum. In neurofeedback, athletes strap on electrodes that measure brainwaves. They then try to learn how to control spikes in those brainwaves, which may signify distractions going on inside their heads, such as obsessing about a past performance. Critics say it’s one thing to be able to manipulate a bunch of lines moving across a screen, but it’s another to remain perfectly calm as a fastball zooms toward you at 100 miles per hour or network cameras hover over your par putt.
As a veteran sports reporter who has seen many training fads come and go, I was curious to try it out. Wiring myself up to a neurofeedback machine, I spent two hours working my way through everything from complicated math computations to techniques for slowing my heart rate. It was far more grueling than I had envisioned. But it gave me some appreciation for what it feels to be more focused — and for how stress and pressure can hijack your brain.
In one exercise, the goal was to use the power of concentration to move two mice forward across a computer screen. Just when I was starting to have some success, I was interrupted by a phone call from my editor, who was calling to burden me with more work. For the next five minutes, I couldn’t even keep the mice from back-pedaling. (See this story for more details on my neurofeedback experience.)
Neurofeedback’s big claim to fame so far is its little-publicized connection to this year’s World Cup. In February, months before the tournament started, some of Italy’s best soccer players, including a handful who would later play in the Cup, began spending much of their practice time in a small room in Milan furnished with six luxury leather recliners facing a glass wall.
[Go to Story]
Our reporter tries neurofeedback and learns from computer-animated mice that he has a “busy brain.”
On the other side of the glass Bruno De Michelis, head of the sports science lab for AC Milan, one of the country’s top professional teams, monitored a bank of six computer screens wired to a system made by Thought Technology Ltd., a Canadian company. The screens showing how each player’s brain responded to stressful situations. Some players, the data showed, were nervous about doing mental exercises in front of their teammates, while others either had trouble winding down after a match or winding up before one. In the following weeks, the players spent hours working on these issues through a series of exercises that resembled computer games, with the brain as the joystick.
Mr. De Michelis says a tremendous amount of energy in soccer games goes to waste because players lose concentration during key moments, like penalty kicks. “I call this useless suffering,” he says. “We can’t do magic here, but it can be of some help.”
Having the ability to tune out distractions during competition — known as having a “quiet mind” — is one of the holy grails of sports. Jocks believe that the capacity to have extreme concentration during stressful moments gives you a big edge, whether it’s a basketball player staying focused on the hoop while thousands of fans are waving their arms in the background, or a tennis player learning not to berate himself for a bad shot.
To help Tiger Woods learn to block out distractions during critical moments, his late father, Earl, used to jingle change in his pocket, drop golf bags and roll balls across his son’s line of vision. Golfer Se Ri Pak’s father used a different approach to make her mentally tougher. When she was a child, he took her to pit-bull fights and Korean cemeteries at night.
Until now, neurofeedback has mostly been confined to medical environments. Sufferers of attention deficit disorder, for example, have been found to have reduced activity in parts of the brain. Neurofeedback teaches them how to produce brainwave patterns that speed up those slow brainwaves. But brain-training has rarely been tried on healthy people, mainly because of doubts about its utility and its high cost, which can be as much as $200 an hour.
Over the last decade, university researchers and some of the companies that make neurofeedback devices have begun to dabble in the sports world, including helping Olympians like Austrian skier Hermann Maier.
Many of these same athletes have already had experience with a technique called biofeedback. Biofeedback differs from neurofeedback in that it focuses on controlling physiological responses to stress (like a fast heart rate and extreme muscle tension) as opposed to neurological responses. (To confuse matters, neurofeedback is sometimes referred to as EEG biofeedback.)
Proponents of neurofeedback say retraining your brain, as futuristic as it sounds, is now possible because scientists know precisely which brainwave frequencies correspond with optimal levels of focus. All a person has to do is learn how to achieve those same frequencies by practicing, they say.
But not all the kinks have been worked out yet, according to some people who have used the neurofeedback devices. Vietta Wilson, who has trained some Canadian track-and-field Olympians, says some of the devices she has tried pick up radio stations instead of brain waves. Another potential problem, according to some researchers: Some of the same devices track brainwaves in a particular part of the brain called the executive center — but altering brainwaves there can trigger depression in certain people. Several device manufacturers say neither of those problems has been an issue with their products.
In the last five years, neurofeedback has become the focus of studies in some top medical and psychology journals. In general, they bolster the case that it’s possible to retrain the brain.
Canada‘s governing body of tennis put some of its top 20 youth players through neurofeedback. And McGill University in Montreal and the National Coaching Institute of Montreal have committed to a five-year study to test neurofeedback on the region’s top 80 athletes in sports ranging from hockey to racquetball.
For high-school football player Michael Dell’Aquila, neurofeedback was part of a plan to gain an edge with college scouts. At the time, Mr. Dell’Aquila, a skilled defensive back, had already received letters of interest from dozens of colleges. But he was concerned about his ability to perform in front of recruiters day after day. Specifically, he wanted to learn how to clear his mind of the previous day’s performance. So last spring, while he was finishing his junior year at Avon Old Farms prep school in
Avon, Conn., he signed up with a nearby practitioner.
Over the course of about 10 sessions, he worked on boosting his concentration by trying to propel a rocket forward with his mind. If his focus drifted and he either began daydreaming or listening to his inner critic, different-colored rockets associated with those brain states would creep forward and begin to overtake his rocket. The sessions also showed that Mr. Dell’Aquila wasn’t getting enough connectivity between the two hemispheres of his brain. So every night during the summer he listened to 30 minutes of specially engineered music. Mr. Dell’Aquila will play football for
College beginning this fall. Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist to a number of top golfers including Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco, says neurofeedback will one day be the norm for PGA Tour pros. But he says he’s not about to strap anything onto his clients until these devices are rigorously tested on amateur players.
Write to Russell Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org
IN THE LAB Physical therapy for the brain Treating certain ailments without drugs is possible with neurofeedback. It lets patients view and modify their mind’s activity.By Eric Jaffe
Special to The Times
November 27, 2006
EVERY week for two years, Michael Hammett stared at a computer screen, trying to open a flower with his mind.
Hammett had developed a case of carpal tunnel syndrome so severe he needed surgery. But being a former opiate abuser, he refused to use the medications that would be needed to control the resulting pain. Having already tried physical therapy, he set his mind on another alternative: neurofeedback.
In neurofeedback, people with mental or psychological conditions learn to regulate and reduce their symptoms — in Hammett’s case, pain — by monitoring their brain waves on a computer. The treatment is an increasingly popular cousin to biofeedback, in which people control physical stress by monitoring their heart rate or muscle tension.
Hammett learned to do both. Electrodes attached to his scalp transmitted electrical signals from his brain to a computer displaying a closed white flower. Other sensors were attached to muscles in both his hands and arms. As Hammett learned what it felt like to relax these muscles, and therefore reduce his pain, the flower began to open. Over time, he trained his brain to calm his central nervous system whenever the pain recurred.
“That image of the flower opening is so burned into my psyche, in conjunction with the moment of relaxation,” the 48-year-old
Santa Monica resident says, three years after finishing his therapy.
Neurofeedback has been used for decades in private clinics, but few well-controlled research studies have been done — giving it an unscientific reputation. That’s beginning to change.
Researchers are now studying and refining the therapy — with promising results. Neurofeedback is being used to treat a growing number of conditions, including chronic pain, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, autism and a variant of autism called Asperger’s syndrome.
“We’ve done some definitive studies finally that show it works in important ways,” says Eran Zaidel, a professor of behavioral neuroscience and cognition at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute.
“It’s still considered an alternative approach to medicine, but some people won’t do conventional medicine at all,” he says. “Many, many people are very eager to use this method.”
Studies show the advantages
Neurofeedback therapy emerged from work done in the 1960s by psychologist Barry Sterman, now professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Medicine. He wired electrodes to the heads of cats, then rewarded them whenever their brain waves reached a frequency that indicated a relaxed state. In subsequent experiments, Sterman found, cats that had learned to relax themselves this way had a higher resistance to the onset of seizures.
The medical applications seemed obvious: If people learned to relax in such a way, they too might be able to stave off seizures or anxiety attacks.
Such a method has advantages over simply taking a pill, says Rob Kall, a neurofeedback practitioner in
Newtown, Penn. “When you’re done with medication, it goes out of your system,” Kall says. But when you’re done with neurofeedback training, the benefits remain.
Perhaps the most researched and accepted application of neurofeedback is with patients who suffer from ADHD.
In 2002, a clinical team led by psychology professor Vincent J. Monastra, director of the FPI Attention Disorders Clinic in
Endicott, N.Y., studied 100 children diagnosed with the condition. All the patients received Ritalin and counseling, but about half also received neurofeedback. Every week, Monastra hooked electrodes to the frontal cortex of these patients and taught them to increase arousal in that area. Heightened frontal cortex activity reflects a reduction in hyperactivity and improvements in attention.
After a year, all the patients showed some improvement. But when the researchers discontinued treatment for a week and reevaluated the patients, only those who received neurofeedback retained those improvements.
The neurofeedback appeared to actually change the patients’ brain patterns, the research found, and neurological tests showed greater activity in the parts of the brain responsible for attention and behavioral control. The study was published in the December 2002 issue of the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.
Between drugs and neurofeedback, only the latter can potentially offer long-lasting change, says clinical psychologist Roger deBeus of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va. “As the brain becomes more normal, patients don’t need as much or any medication,” he says.
Russ Ramsay, associate director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the
Pennsylvania, says patients are intrigued by the possibilities. “More people are seeking it out and entering into the treatment,” he says. Cravings can be lessened with neurofeedback too. Clinical psychologist Stephen Sideroff of the UCLA School of Medicine published the first controlled study examining neurofeedback as a tool to help substance abusers. The study enrolled 120 patients from a residential treatment program in
Los Angeles; the group included those who were dependent on alcohol, heroin, crack and methamphetamine.
In addition to counseling, half the patients received neurofeedback, in which they learned to stabilize certain brain waves related to stress that comes with the initial phases of substance abuse recovery. After a year of treatment, 77% of the users who had received neurofeedback training remained abstinent, compared with 44% of the control patients, according to research published in 2005 in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Precision up for debate
Some critics of neurofeedback have said it’s too imprecise. Electrodes placed on the scalp can detect brain waves toward the surface of the brain, they say, but might fail to measure waves at sub-cortical levels, such as those involved in attention and arousal regulation. Several advances in neurofeedback, however, promise more precise readings.
Monastra now uses a technique known as multi-channel neurofeedback. Instead of focusing on just one part of the brain, the technique gives readings from many brain regions.
“As we become more aware of the different subtypes of neurological problems, we use specific protocols to address those problems,” he says. “Chances are we’ll start to get even more robust results.”
Multi-channel neurofeedback surveys the brain’s surface to locate an abnormality, but another type of therapy actually looks into the core. The therapy — low-resolution electromagnetic tomography — can show clinicians signals from regions deep below the scalp.
“The idea is, if we can get more specific, we can intervene faster and more effectively,” says Leslie Sherlin, who is getting his doctorate in psychology at
In tests with obsessive-compulsive patients, Sherlin located increased neural activity in the cingulate gyrus, an area toward the brain’s core that’s involved in regulating attention and arousal.
Over-arousal in this area causes patients to ruminate on germs or other obsessions, he says. Teaching patients to regulate the brain waves from the gyrus could lead to improved treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to an analysis of the technique that Sherlin published in Neuroscience Letters in 2005.
Promising but not yet accepted
Neurofeedback has yet to achieve widespread acceptance. “Many people out there feel threatened by it, because people are putting it out there as alternative,” says psychologist Jeffrey Bone, who runs a private practice in
County and began using neurofeedback a year ago.
“I see it as a complement to medicine or psychotherapy, not a challenge or alternative.”
But neurofeedback researchers expect acceptance of the therapy to grow.
For starters, the therapy is cost effective, they say. In the case of asthma, for example, if a biofeedback session costs about $150 — a typical rate in most clinics (neurofeedback costs about the same) — then the patient has acquired an unlimited therapeutic tool for the price of about four months of steroid medication, says Paul Lehrer, professor of psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.
Says UCLA’s Sideroff: “There are a lot of obstacles. But it’s an effective tool, so I think it will keep growing.”