You might have heard of biofeedback, a scientific approach of collecting information about the body and its processes through monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and brain waves. Types of biofeedback include:
- Heart rate variability (HRV)
- Muscular (EMG)
- Neurotherapy, neurobiofeedback or neurofeedback
Neurofeedback, in short, is an arm of biofeedback that reports on neurological activities or brainwaves. Clinicians require electronic sensors that are hooked up to the patient and monitoring devices to obtain this information. Brainwaves are understood in terms of their height (amplitude) and their functioning with other waves in other areas of the brain. A lack of balance is evidence of dysregulation in the brain.
Neurofeedback can serve as an excellent diagnostic tool of brain health. Through a process known as quantitative EEG (QEEG), specific areas of dysregulation can be identified.
This information can then be compared to other samples of the population of the same gender and age. The information is useful for anyone who has a brain injury or suffers from a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder. Neurofeedback is never an end in itself, but rather an illuminating first step in the process of improving brain health and function.
Addiction and the Brain
Whatever your weight and height, your entire body is regulated by approximately three pounds of mass sitting inside your head. The brain involves a complex system of information-laden circuits. Introducing drugs into the brain confuses and changes this circuitry. To provide a visual, imagine the central mailroom of a busy office. You would see people sending, receiving and processing important information that is vital to the healthy functioning of the business. Now imagine a bandit breaking in from the outside and forcing the old system to change into an inefficient and dysfunctional one. That bandit would be illicit drugs.
Addictive drugs in the brain are often involved in pain messaging and the brain’s reward system. Many drugs trigger the release of dopamine, which then floods the reward system circuitry with pleasurable messages. In the user, this neurological event is translated into a rush of pleasure. The brain remembers this event, and as part of its survival orientation, it sends messages to the user to keep using the drug.
In response to the surges of dopamine, the brain compensates by producing less dopamine or decreasing the amount of dopamine receptors (i.e., the brain is trying to restore the normal functioning and balance of the reward system). This process is experienced in the user as drug tolerance. In the long term, this process can result in a user becoming unable to experience the healthy level of pleasure that existed before drug use. Additional long-term effects include impairment of cognitive functioning and making the brain sensitive to drug relapse (the brain becomes conditioned to respond to certain drug use triggers like passing a bar, such that even when drug use ends, the brain is still sensitive to these environmental cues to use).
Neurofeedback and Addiction
According to the International Society for Neurofeedback & Research, use of neurofeedback in drug addiction treatment can improve outcomes. One of the main findings of neurofeedback studies is that a drug user may be predisposed to a dysregulation of certain brain waves, and abusing a drug is temporarily helpful.
For instance, research has revealed that alcoholics tend to have low alpha and theta wave brain activity. Research has found that these low alpha and theta brain wave states exist prior to the onset of alcoholism, though the disease makes the alpha and theta deficiency worse. Alpha and theta waves are associated with a relaxed but alert state. In view of this feedback, alcoholics can learn natural techniques to increase their alpha waves and then their beta waves. Methodologies to increase this brain activity include relaxation and sound therapy.
Addiction is a complex illness and requires a multidisciplinary treatment approach. Neurofeedback can complement prevailing treatment methodologies, but it is not intended to be a substitute for them. As research continues to support that addiction is a disorder or disease of the brain, the door is opened wider to advances in the scope of treatments, including neurofeedback.
At FRN, our rehab services include scientifically proven methodologies that provide the best opportunity for a safe and effective recovery. Upon admission, treating professionals will work with you to create a tailored treatment program optimized to fit your recovery needs. Call us today to learn more about how we can help.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.