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Neurofeedback brain training may help reduce symptoms of psychiatric illness

New research gives patients with PTSD the power to restore their own patterns of brain activity

A screenshot from the video training game used with neurofeedback in this study. When patients with PTSD were successful in reducing the brain’s dominant brain wave, the space ship moved forward.

LHSC: University Hospital - 

In a new study at Lawson Health Research Institute (Lawson) and the University of Geneva, researchers showed that a technique called brain training can be used to restore patterns of brain activity and reduce symptoms of hyperarousal in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Individuals with PTSD often experience more random patterns of brain activity. A leading symptom of PTSD is hyperarousal, which is associated with defensive responses to stress or triggers. A technique to restore patterns of brain activity to a more balanced order and reduce hyperarousal therefore holds promise as a potential treatment.

With the brain training technique, also called neurofeedback, patients exercise their own brain activity through a circular neurofeedback loop, which acts as a mirror to display brain activity. This is done through a brain-computer interface that records brain signals through sensors on the scalp. Since brain activity is displayed on screen, users can complete brain training exercises in ways similar to a gym workout.

In this study, led by Lawson’s Dr. Ruth Lanius, the goal was for patients with PTSD to reduce the intensity of the brain’s dominant brain wave - the alpha rhythm. Patients used neurofeedback to visualize their brain activity as they played a simple video training game. The 30-minute game consisted of a space ship displayed on a starry background. When patients were successful in reducing their alpha rhythm, the space ship moved forward. 

“Patients reported reducing the dominant brain wave by concentrating their attention towards the visuals on screen. This seemed to propel the spaceship forward,” said Dr. Ruth Lanius, a scientist at Lawson and a psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre. “This is consistent with prior research that suggests the alpha rhythm is reduced with increased processing of attention.”

The researchers were surprised to find the reduction in alpha rhythm resulted in lasting changes. After the initial reduction, the alpha rhythm rebounded, or increased, to levels matching those found in healthy individuals. Patterns of brain activity were restored to a more proportional balance that is associated with healthy brain function.

Following these sessions, patients experienced a decrease in hyperarousal. “This is very significant. Neurofeedback may give patients the power to restore their patterns of brain activity and improve symptoms of psychiatric illness,” said Dr. Lanius, who is also a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “This means that existing mechanisms of the human brain may be harnessed for therapy, providing an alternative to pharmaceutical and brain stimulation therapies.”

Dr. Lanius and her collaborators are currently continuing this research with a larger group of patients with PTSD. Patients in this study will complete multiple sessions of brain training to determine whether positive effects can be sustained long-term.

The study, “Neurofeedback tunes scale-free dynamics in spontaneous brain activity”, was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex

Above: Dr. Ruth Lanius

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