Last updated: 05/4/2018
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Combining science and medicine is not a particularly new concept. In the 1940s scientists began measuring and recording the bodies responses using electrodes. This was the beginning of biofeedback. Later in the 1950s and 1960s this science expanded to include electroencephalograms or EEG machines. This gave way to a range of experiments in both recording and training brainwaves. Although it seems futuristic, it is possible to train your brain using this method. Before entering brainwave biofeedback also known as neurotherapy for addiction, it is important to know what it is and how it can help as well as what the benefits, risks, and drawbacks are.
What is Brainwave Biofeedback?
Brainwave biofeedback is a form of therapy that records brainwaves and then uses them to help the addict self regulate brain function. An EEG machine is hooked to a computer and a sound or video system. First, a baseline is established. This is a reading without any stimulus. Then stimulus is applied and the EEG machine takes another reading. When a person wants to train themselves to regulate their brainwaves they use something similar to operant conditioning. When the desired brainwaves are present, the computer uses positive feedback and when undesirable brainwaves are present, it uses negative feedback. The feedback is in the form of video or sounds.
Biofeedback Therapy in Addiction Treatment
Although operant conditioning is one of the more common methods of retraining habits and other undesirable behaviors, it does not always work with addiction. It is the nature of addiction that is the issue, a true addict will still use despite the negative consequence. Neurotherapy attempts to train the addict to control the brainwaves that are present during cravings, negative behavior, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms of addiction and withdrawal. This therapy can also teach an addict how to meditate by showing them how to replicate the brainwaves of someone in deep meditation. This method is most commonly seen along with other treatments such as behavioral therapy and relaxation therapy. According to The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in a study done on mixed substance abuse populations, patients using neurofeedback (EEG biofeedback) showed significant improvement in treatment retention, and abstinence rates of up to one year after treatment.
In the past, a simple EEG machine recorded brainwaves and produces a result. Now the EEG is more of a program in a computer and sensors attached to the patient. The computer is better able to analyze the brainwaves and provide stimulus based on that analysis. If a person’s brainwaves are in a meditative state, the computer might give positive feedback if this is the desired response. If the brainwaves are in a craving state, then negative feedback is given. It is up to the individual to return their brainwaves to the correct state.
Benefits of Brainwave Biofeedback
The benefits of brainwave biofeedback are varied depending on the type of treatment and the wiliness of the participant. It can help you:
- learn how to meditate and gives you confirmation when your brain is in a meditative state
- by giving positive reinforcement when the pattern is correct
- learn about yourself and the way that your addiction affects your brain
- correct undesirable behaviors and thoughts
- modify anxious behavior
- modify psychotic behavior
- change attitudes towards addiction and your drug of choice
- help you understand your addiction and withdrawal symptoms
These are not the only benefits to neurofeedback. Many benefits depend on the individual circumstance and addiction. Therapists use neurofeedback to modify behavior. An addict can modify most behaviors in this way.
Other disorders often cause a person to become addicted to drugs, either to relieve symptoms or as an escape. According to the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Neurofeedback can be used to treat these common disorders that frequently coincide with addiction:
- anxiety and panic disorders
- back pain
- chronic pain
- eating disorders
- high blood pressure due to stress
- irritable bowel syndrome due to stress
- mood disorders
- other psychiatric conditions
Other mental and physical disorders are treated with both neurofeedback and biofeedback. These disorders and their treatment depend on the exact condition and the reasons for the condition. It is impossible to list all of neurofeedback’s potential uses because many of them are still in the research and development stages. Many sources say that the ongoing research into neurofeedback will reveal more and more practical applications for the technology.
Steps to Using Neurofeedback
Although neurofeedback or brainwave feedback is a very simple concept, some steps are necessary otherwise, the process will not work.
- Work with a therapist to discover the negative behaviors that you want to modify.
- Once the behaviors are identified, find viable solutions to the pattern of behavior.
- Learn the behavior modification techniques that help to reduce or change the behavior.
- Start therapy by taking a baseline with a neurofeedback device.
- Once the baseline behavior is established work to find the point where the correct feeling or behavior is displayed.
- Make sure both the positive and negative scenario brainwaves are identified correctly.
- Engage in as many sessions of biofeedback as necessary to modify the behavior and create permanent change.
- Although this step is not always necessary, the neurofeedback therapy might need to be enforced after therapy is stopped. This is to prevent behavior extinction.
It is important to make sure that all of the steps are completed and you are modifying the correct behavior. Each person is different and has a different brainwave pattern. Be careful about which behaviors are being reinforced so you do not end up reinforcing a negative behavior.
Drawbacks of Brainwave Biofeedback
You have to know how to change your brainwaves. This process is not as difficult as it sounds. Many people can change their brainwaves by simply thinking certain things. Unfortunately, with most addicts, a therapist has to teach you the techniques needed to change your brainwaves to a more positive track. Therapists do this by teaching relaxation techniques, guided meditation, and other behavioral patterns.
Another big drawback of using neurofeedback to treat addiction is the time that it takes. Some behaviors take as much as 20 weekly sessions to treat. This does not include the time that it takes to learn and practice the techniques to induce positive behavior like relaxation and meditation.
Biofeedback and neurofeedback are still in their infancy. Several methods of obtaining biofeedback have changed with the advent of more advanced computers so there has been a resurgence in studying it for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
With the new age bend towards spiritual enlightenment, people sometimes ignore the science behind biofeedback. Some people are unwilling to try it because of its association with fringe science.
There are myths surrounding neurofeedback, brought on by the media and other entities. Some of these myths stem from unethical research practices and the thought of mind control frightens most people. Neurofeedback is a form of self-mind control not controlling the minds of others.
Therapists always have to combine it with other therapies. The information provided is just that, information, without teaching the addict how to change their brainwaves, neurofeedback is not effective.
Risks of Using Brainwave Biofeedback
The risks currently associated with neurofeedback vary depending on the treatment method used and the condition treated. In some high risk populations neurofeedback can make the condition worse. These high risk and medium risk populations are addicts who also have:
- bi-polar disorder – may trigger an opposite episode
- situational or clinical major depression – may trigger suicidal behavior or a depressive episode
- seizures – the use of light and sound could trigger a seizure with some treatments,
- a history of suicidal behavior or current suicidal ideation – as above, the cause of the suicidal behavior or ideation could get worse
- acquired brain injuries – using neurofeedback can trigger seizures and other brain anomalies, treatment may not be as effective due to brain repatterning due to injury
- narcolepsy – any history of unconsciousness or syncope is dangerous when combined with neurofeedback
- reactive attachment disorder – neurofeedback has the potential to cause violent episodes in people with RAD
- Dissociative Identity Disorder – too little is known about this condition to speculate what neurofeedback would do
- panic disorder – because neurofeedback sometimes produces intense emotions, it could potentially trigger a panic attack
- a history of psychosis – neurofeedback could trigger a psychotic episode in some of the less stable individuals
- Migraines – neurofeedback’s use of light and sound could potentially trigger a migraine, and
- cognitive dysfunction could be made worse by neurofeedback
Because addiction often coincides with other disorders, it is a good idea to be cautious when treating addicts with other conditions. This is not to say that these disorders cannot be treated using neurofeedback. It just means that extra caution needs to be taken when treating individuals with these disorders.
Another risk is modifying the wrong behavior. This is why it is important to use this type of under a doctor or therapist’s supervision. Even though you know what behavior you want to modify without knowledge of brainwaves and EEG readings, it is possible to modify a good behavior and replace it with a bad one.
How Does it Help in with Drug Addiction?
Brainwave biofeedback helps with drug addiction by providing usable feedback. When an addict is in a desired state, such as not craving the drug, he or she can remember what that felt like. They know they are in a helpful state because the computer gives positive feedback. When they are craving the drug, the computer prompts them to return to the positive state by providing negative feedback. The addict tries to use the mood changing behaviors learned in therapy to produce the desired result.
Although this seems simplistic, having something measure the actual thought pattern while in each state and give a tone or response when that state changes shows the addict which state he or she is in. This allows them to correct the state and have confirmation that it is correct. It is similar to learning in school. When you take a pretest, it shows you what you do not know. Then by taking the posttest, it shows you what you have learned. Having tangible proof of improvement helps the student or in the case of neurofeedback the patient continue on with the treatment.
Neurofeedback is considered a holistic approach to treating addiction. It is a combination of technology and medicine and when applied to addiction has proven results. When conquering addiction it is important to use all of the tools at your disposal. Brainwave Biofeedback is one of those tools.