Step aside, naps and Netflix. Students can now use a cutting-edge technique called neurofeedback to help themselves relax after a long day of exams.
Neurofeedback is a therapeutic method that allows scientists to train patients to focus their thoughts using real-time brain scans and feedback strategies. This innovative field can also help treat various mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
In a recent study, UT psychology professor David Schnyer and his team conditioned depressed patients to selectively focus on a neutral scene while ignoring emotionally fueled images, such as sad faces.
While patients viewed the images, the researchers collected the patients’ brain activity and provided feedback. For example, when patients became distracted by the image of the sad face, researchers enlarged it to remind the patients to reorient their attention.
According to Jennifer Schriever, UT alumnus and licensed professional counselor at Austin Biofeedback Center, the positive and negative feedback methods can change depending on the patient’s conditions.
“I don’t offer people a steak if they react successfully, but they might get a simple reward like a green circle to appear on the screen and a bell to ring,” Schriever said. “Patients might also choose a movie — Wes Anderson films are particularly powerful.”
If the patient’s brain waves do not meet a set criteria, the patient will receive negative feedback — the movie will dim.
“When their brain meets the criteria to increase to a more focused brain wave, the movie brightens up enough so they can see it in full technicolor,” Schriever said.
While the efficacy of sessions depends on the severity of the mental condition, most neurofeedback patients reap visible improvements. The make-up of patients range from those with mental illnesses to those hoping to better control their attention in daily life.
“The demographic is a lot more mixed than you might think,” Schriever said. “We frequently work with returned veterans, pro bono cases, PTSD, trauma and even UT athletes who want to build up their mental stamina.”
However, researchers still face limitations with neurofeedback therapy. For example, the current method of functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity with blood flow, causes a temporal delay.
Schriever said that as neurofeedback gains popularity, regulatory boards need to make sure only licensed health care professionals perform these techniques.
“If anyone is looking at neurofeedback, it’s really important for potential patients to consider that in Texas, to practice, someone needs to be a licensed counselor, a licensed psychologist or a licensed psychiatrist,” Schriever said. “Make sure you’re working with someone who really knows about the brain.”
Schnyer said recent scientific findings could facilitate accessible and effective methods of controlling various mental illnesses, including anxiety, PTSD and depression.
“Imagine if you have this person with a mental illness who’s been feeling out of control, and you sit them down and show them that they can alter their mental activity,” Schnyer said. “The sense of self-mastery — you can’t discount that.”
According to both Schnyer and Schriever, neurofeedback not only gives individuals the opportunity to take control of their emotional states but also has the potential to revolutionize the way the public thinks about the difficult treatment of mental illnesses.
“To me, emphasis on underlying biological causes is a given, but that’s not what it’s been for the public,” Schnyer said. “So the more we emphasize it, the more people will realize that these mental health illnesses are really biological disorders, like a virus or a cancer we need to treat.”