Imagine a treatment that involves sitting in a chair, with electrodes attached to your skull. The electrodes are attached to a computer that measure activity in your brain and then send feedback to regulate your brainwaves. Are you rolling your eyes at this weak sci-fi portrayal of futuristic mind-bending medicine?
Though it may sound farfetched, neurofeedback has been around since the 1960s. The evidence is not definitive, but there’s growing research to suggest that neurofeedback could be used to treat ADHD, migraines, PTSD, or simply improve mood.
Some are effusive about the results. Newsweek journalist Winston Ross described two professionally administered neurofeedback treatments. “After the first session, I felt as if I’d just finished meditating, and the world seemed a little brighter. After the second, I felt like I’d taken a Xanax,” he wrote.
Ross reported that rising interest in the concept means there are now take-home, do-it-yourself versions of the treatment, though experts do advise against it. “It could be really great for you, or it could really mess you up,” warned Kirk Little, a Cincinnati psychologist and president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research.
On the more scientific end, some of the strongest support for neurofeedback is in connection with ADHD. As The Washington Post reported, a trial of 104 children found neurofeedback could be a “promising attention training treatment for children with ADHD.”
In these cases, the computer would monitor for brainwave patterns that show focus and attention. In one form of treatment, reported on by NPR, focused brainwaves are rewarded by images of flowers and birdsong. The brain associates focus with positive reward, and becomes better at controlling attention over time.
There are also stories of neurofeedback improving recovery from brain surgery, epileptic seizures, or chronic pain.
“We don’t know exactly how neurofeedback works,” Deborah Stokes, an Alexandria psychologist told the Washington Post. “It’s a process where if clients get out of their own way, they relax. Over time, they get the desired brain pattern, feel calm and function better. This encourages them to stay with it.”
As the treatment can cost thousands, it’s currently more likely to be an option for those with difficult-to-treat conditions who are struggling with more typical medicine. But though neurofeedback isn’t quite a high-tech alternative to the calming effects of yoga, there’s just enough evidence to keep scientists interested. And the growing body of research could ultimately turn this sci-fi scenario into a sensible treatment option.
by Olivia Goldhill For Quartz