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Training the Brain

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Biofeedback: a non-invasive, patient-driven healing modality It could almost be a scene from a science fiction movie: patients with electrodes attached to their heads, staring at screens, trying to control the electronic waves with their minds.

Biofeedback: a non-invasive, patient-driven healing modality

It could almost be a scene from a science fiction movie: patients with electrodes attached to their heads, staring at screens, trying to control the electronic waves with their minds. Or a child playing specially designed video games not with a joystick or control pad, but sheer mental power. The goal? To train the brain to focus, to reduce the number of slow-moving brainwaves and increase the number of fast ones.

That may be putting the complex therapy of biofeedback into simple terms, but that's exactly what eight-year-old Julie Armour (not her real name) does as part of her treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her mother, unhappy with the heavy regimen of drugs prescribed to her daughter, decided to look into other options for help. Now, twice a week, the Armours visit their biofeedback practitioner in Toronto.

Tiny electrodes are attached to Julie's head and clipped to her ears, and the game begins. When Julie is concentrating and focused on the task at hand, she'll be winning the game. Her points fall off as soon as her mind starts to wander. In other brain exercises, Julie can control pictures and sounds with her headwork. The idea is that, after a number of sessions perhaps 40 or more Julie will have trained her brain to focus and stay on task.

Two months into her six-month program, Julie says she gets more work done at school than she used to. Her mother is already noticing marked improvements in her social behaviour and is eager to reduce Julie's drug intake.

What is Biofeedback?

Above is just one application of biofeedback therapy, a patient-guided treatment being used to treat a range of conditions in children and adults, from stress, to alcohol addiction, to epilepsy. The term itself was coined in the late-60s to cover a range of laboratory procedures that trained patients to alter brain activity, body tension, blood pressure, muscle tension and other bodily functions using signals from their own bodies.

"Biofeedback" refers to the biological signals that are returned (fed back) to the patient in order for that patient to manipulate them. When the patient views the feedback from the monitors, he can begin to recognize what thoughts and images influence his physical reactions. In effect, it's an exercise in developing finely tuned self-awareness. Patients are encouraged to look at other situations, habits and things in their lives that may trigger stress or pain.

Guided by the principles that the brain and physical body work as one unit, and that we can indeed control our bodily functions, biofeedback therapy has been used successfully to both heal and lessen a patient's reliance on drugs and other invasive techniques. Many illnesses treatable with biofeedback are stress-related. Certain types of headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, teeth grinding, substance abuse, eating disorders and anxiety may all be helped. It has also been used to treat chronic pain, epilepsy, attention deficit disorder, urinary incontinence, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and more.

Depending on the condition, patients require anywhere from 10 to 50 or more biofeedback sessions. The good news is that, for diligent patients, the therapy may eventually teach them permanent habits of self-regulation. After a complete series of sessions, most graduate successfully and permanently, though some may return from time to time for a "refresher."

Many illnesses treatable with biofeedback are stress-related. Certain types of headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, teeth grinding, substance abuse, eating disorders and anxiety may all be helped.

Studies Say...

Although there is still skepticism among allopathic doctors about the worth of biofeedback, convincing research for the use of biofeedback is mounting.

A German study found that two-thirds of epilepsy patients could reduce their seizure rate by learning to control very low frequency brain waves in the cortex, thereby stabilizing brain function (Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology, April 1999).

Researchers in Ontario taught ADHD patients biofeedback and learning strategies. They found a significant improvement in symptoms (including impulsiveness and inattention) after 40 biofeedback sessions, as well as a change in the ratio of beta (slower) to theta (faster) waves (Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, December 1998).

NASA has reportedly used biofeedback techniques to treat astronauts who suffer from space sickness resulting from disruptions to the automatic nervous system.

On the Hunt

Unfortunately for those who would like to give biofeedback therapy a try, practitioners are few and far between outside major centres in Canada. A good place to start your search is on the Web. Visit the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (bcia.org) for a list of practicing, certified professionals in North America. As when looking for any health professional, carefully research his or her credentials. You might also want to inquire if the practitioner has a valid license in a relevant health field such as psychology or medicine. Because biofeedback therapy is used to treat such a wide variety of illnesses, ensure your chosen practitioner has experience in treating your condition. Ask around-there's nothing better than word of mouth to assure you that everything is in order.

Take Home Steps

Generally, biofeedback is done with a certified biofeedback therapist who sets up and administers the proper training sessions, teaches awareness, and follows up. However, self-training, in terms of awareness, can be done anywhere. Careful self-monitoring of moods and symptoms could give you the same sort of information, though in a less formal way, as biofeedback equipment. Keep a journal and take note of when exactly a migraine starts, where you were, and what happened. Learn what situations to avoid, and what works to help you cope when you're there.

Monitoring your stressors is the first step to overcoming them. There are some helpful home tricks you can try: a strip of tape on your forehead, for one, will let you know when you furrow your brow. There are products available, such as "Stress Dots," which are stickers that change colour in times of stress and changes in body temperature.

Yoga, stretching, and other relaxation techniques are often used in conjunction with biofeedback. Learn what works for you. Recognize triggers in your environment and regain control over your own nervous system. In this way, biofeedback can become the ultimate self-help discipline.

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