By Nora Heston
Parents of children with neurological disorders face many challenges raising their children in a world that is catered toward neurotypical children, free of known neurological disorders. Many of these parents would do anything to safely curb the challenges presented to their children, but the problem they are faced with is finding a safe treatment that works for their kids. What if there was a non-invasive treatment available to children and adults diagnosed with neurological disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other learning disabilities? I bet you would want to learn more.
Experts have found success in neurofeedback, a process that uses reward systems to normalize or improve brain function. Studies have shown that people who receive neurofeedback treatments can receive positive results after just one session, greatly reducing the complications and side effects commonly associated with these conditions.
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback better described as direct training of brain function. The process requires participants to have electrodes and/or sensors placed on their scalp. During treatments, participants learn to change their own brain wave activity through a computer interface that utilizes a simple reward system, explains Dr. Jason J. Baker, Ph.D., at Baker Neuropsychology. Dan Williams, director at SIRRI Arizona, gives an example of the reward-reinforcement system. “When your brain is responding favorably you will be rewarded with auditory and/or visual feedback.” For example, he explains, a DVD will play when your brain responds well, but if your brain does not meet its goal, there will be no feedback – i.e. the DVD will pause. This creates a reward of the DVD playing and a challenge of the DVD pausing.
So how does this apply to neurological disorders? Results are achieved by recording the electrical activity coming from your brain and then setting difficulty levels that challenge your brain, Williams says. “For instance, children with ADD/ADHD often exhibit excessive slow [brain] waves in the frontal lobes, producing difficulty controlling attention, behavior and emotions, resulting in problems with concentration, memory, controlling their impulses and moods, and/or hyperactivity,” Dr. Baker says. “During neurofeedback, whenever the person’s brain waves unconsciously change in the desired direction, a reward, [such as] brightening of a cartoon being watched on a DVD, is given. The person’s brain learns to reproduce the same effect again, resulting in additional rewards.”
“One of the very exciting things about neurofeedback is that children can receive a non-invasive treatment that results in documented changes in neurological functioning without needing to take medication,” says Dr. Baker, who notes children taking medication are still candidates for neurofeedback. Instead neurofeedback offers an alternative for children who have not responded positively to medication. It is the treatment’s ability to train highly specific areas at the same time that allows neurofeedback to address a wide variety of symptoms within each session.
The treatment may also aid in social aspects for children and adults who have difficulty verbalizing their thoughts and feelings by significantly improving anxiety and depression in the absence of the client having good insight about their symptoms or the ability to describe them in detail, Dr. Baker says.
Perhaps the best analogy is likening the neurofeedback process to exercising or doing physical therapy with the brain. Dr. Baker says it enhances cognitive flexibility and control.
Does it work?
Neurofeedback dates back to the 1950s, with a significant revival of the practice in the 1980s, according to www.braintrainuk.com. Since then, results have been closely monitored. In 1995, Dr. Joel F. Lubar published a ten-year follow-up and found that in about 80 percent of clients, neurofeedback substantially improved symptoms of ADD and ADHD. Additionally, his research found these changes were maintained over the ten year time period.
A recent study in Pediatrics looked at younger participants, citing retention of improvements in younger children with ADHD at a follow-up six months after neurofeedback had been stopped. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its “Evidence-Based Child and Adolescent Psychosocial Interventions” and elevated neurofeedback to the status of “Level 1 – Best Support” as an intervention for Attention and Hyperactivity Behaviors.
Dr. Baker says approximately 85-90 percent of his own clients experience significant improvements in functioning after a neurofeedback training trial.
Beyond neurological disorders
While there is a heavy emphasis on neurofeedback to treat neurological disorders, it is also commonly being used to treat other ailments, such as anxiety, depression, migraines and insomnia.
Additionally, neurofeedback is now being used to facilitate peak performance in ‘‘normal’’ individuals, such as executives, athletes, musicians and surgeons, says Dr. Baker, who cites one study that found surgeons who underwent neurofeedback treatment were quicker in surgery and had significantly less anxiety.
Is neurofeedback right
for your child?
While neurofeedback is appropriate for both children and adults, children are usually better candidates for the treatment, showing more rapid improvement due to increased brain plasticity that allows their brains to change more easily. Dr. Baker recommends the treatment for children as young as 3 years old.
While Dr. Baker says some of his clients have reported experiencing results after just one treatment, he stresses the importance of multiple sessions. Immediate changes are short-lived until more sessions have been completed, he explains. And while some participants may only require 10-12 sessions, others require more to see long-term, significant results.
Does Your Child Have
a Medical Home?
Today, we hear the term Medical Home frequently, but usually without a definition or clear description. Jody M. Pirtle, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor at Northern Arizona University, tells us that ”A medical ‘home’ is not a physical place where families reside, but rather a ‘home-base’ within the community—a location where families can be connected to community supports and services for their children.” Medical homes may be clinics, pediatric practices, or individual healthcare providers who use a family-centered approach in providing services for children.
Pirtle goes on to say, “Although all children rely on their families for ensuring their health, development, and overall well-being, for CSHCN [Children with Special Health Care Needs] the role of the family is even more critical.” CSHCN have chronic conditions like Autism, ADHD, life-threatening allergies, Anxiety Disorder, Spina Bifida or many other conditions that may affect a child’s behavioral, emotional or physical development. Within the Medical Home, parents’ perspectives are sought, not only to inform decisions about their own child’s care, but also to improve services for all children.
Next time you see your child’s healthcare provider, talk with them about Medical Home and the approach they use. Dr. Pirtle’s article, “Family Participation Within the Medical Home,” which appears in Bridge Briefs, 2014, Issue 2 (available online at nau.edu) provides more information on Medical Home and family-centered care.
For easy-to-use tools and resources for families, contact the Office of Children with Special Health Care Needs at the Arizona Department of Health Services, 1 (800) 232-1676 or [email protected]