Life is all about performance. If you perform well, you live well, and you can perform at your best. Is there something that holds you back or an area that you’d like to improve upon? Neurotechnology has evolved to identify areas of improvement and design a customized and targeted training plan to help you achieve your cognitive goals. Neurofeedback is a gym for brain fitness, and Dr. Andrew Hill, founder and director of the Peak Brain Institute, is a personal (brain) coach. Keep reading to learn what is neurofeedback, how it can be used, its history and limitations, and which brain features will improve your performance if addressed. Dr. Andrew Hill is speaking at Biohacker Summit Toronto 15-16 October and giving a neurofeedback workshop on 17 October. More information and registration here.
So, what is EEG?
Simply put, electroencephalography or EEG are brain waves, signals from brain cells that can be picked up from outside using electrodes placed along the scalp, which record the electrical activity of the brain.
Brain mapping or QEEG (Q standing for quantitative) is a snapshot or visual map of your brain that allows designing a protocol specifically tailored to your needs and desired outcomes.
QEEG provides a lot of information, including how your brain may be unusual across EEG frequencies (speed, power, and distribution), connectivity patterns, and how your brain changes state. Your recording is compared to a database of thousands of “typical” brains to find unusual patterns.
QEEG refers to the analysis of the data, the database comparison. Database recording are very robust. QEEG data doesn’t change that much and is not so different from other people. For example, 1-year-apart EEGs will be identical unless you had a strong meditation practice, a head injury, or done neurofeedback. QEEG patterns are valid on a population level, which might not be valid for a specific person. So, QEEG always answers to the questions of what you want to change or achieve, not what’s ‘wrong’ with you.
Once you identify functional issues, neurofeedback will help you improve your peak brain performance.
Then, what is neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback in the brain. It is both exercise and therapy for your brain. It is a process in which simple auditory and visual feedback guide your brain gradually to make more or less of specific brainwave frequency bands, and/or to enhance connectivity between two regions of the brain. These frequencies and connectivity guide much of our mental behavior, so as we adjust them we adjust the corresponding behaviors.
Neurofeedback provides information to the brain about its own activity in real time, encouraging and allowing it to change based on this monitoring.
Training the brain is similar to physical exercise. Only after exercising regularly will you experience a gradual shift in the experience of resources and performance. However, unlike exercising your body, exercising your brain with neurofeedback typically requires only between 20-40 sessions to make noticeable and lasting changes.
How does it work?
The EEG patterns are measured from moment to moment. When they shift in the right direction, we applaud the brain with visual feedback. You can train using the EEG (brainwaves) or HEG (blood flow) using biofeedback, but unlike “peripheral” biofeedback, neurofeedback is mostly involuntary.
Efficacy is very high and there are rapid results for ADHD, sleep, and anxiety issues. Results are evident after 30 sessions, and the effects are long-lasting or permanent.
In the words of Dr. Hill: “We are meeting the needs of the person. We are a fitness center, not a doctor’s office. We ask you what you want, never tell you what you need.”
How can neurofeedback help me?
As Dr. Hill says at the Peak Brain Institute, “No matter how good your brain is, we can always make it better!” This is what he means by peak brain performance.
In the beginning, neurofeedback was extensively used for seizures and epilepsy in humans. Now, it is used for mood, attention and focus, self-regulation and self-control, sleep, energy, stress, migraines, anxiety, brain injuries and even creativity. Neurofeedback also has outstanding success in treating age-related cognitive disorders, anxiety disorders (like ADD and ADHD), addiction, and symptoms of the autism spectrum. It can also be used to trigger a deep relaxation (for creativity, or anxiety and overstimulation), or to exercise the brain for stability and increased metabolism.
It takes time to make those changes, but after they become tools that stay within your brain.
Brain vs mind
The mind is the part of the brain you’re aware of. However, we are not aware of many things that our brain does automatically.
With this in mind, cognitive therapy doesn’t solve issues that are predominantly neurological like ADHD, autistic spectrum disorder, Tourette’s, etc; it can only minimize the impact in your life. However, psychological events like anxiety and trauma can be successfully resolved within therapy.
Why does neurofeedback work?
The answer is neuroplasticity, the capacity of our brains to change all the time and having the technology to direct this change to the desired outcome.
The brain is constantly reorganizing itself. The brain rewires itself all the time, neurons that share synapses (are attached) are used to fire together in a chain over time. If you practice patterns, your brain will change over time.
Learning happens in the order of minutes, but creating new brain cells takes about 5 weeks. The brain adapts functionally to meet specific needs, and the limits of neuroplasticity have not yet been discovered.
When additional resources are needed, our brain:
- Recruits additional parts of the brain (cortex), and/or
- Adds more neuronal connections to provide greater power.
What fires together, wires together. Repeated firing of neurons produces greater efficiency, interconnectivity, and synchronization. Cell assemblies organize into neural networks, a fundamental principle of learning. When you practice brain activity of a certain type, you rewire circuits in your brain.
Delta are the highest in amplitude and slowest waves, with a frequency of up to 4 Hz. In adults, they are associated with slow-wave sleep and memory consolidation.
Theta is the frequency range from 4 to 7 Hz. Theta is seen in drowsiness or arousal in older children and adults, and also during meditation.
Alpha is the frequency range from 8 to 13 Hz. It emerges with the closing of the eyes and with relaxation and attenuates with eye opening or mental exertion.
Beta is the frequency range from 14 to about 40 Hz. Beta activity is closely linked to motor behavior and is generally attenuated during active movements. Low-amplitude beta with multiple and varying frequencies is often associated with active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration.
Gamma is the frequency over 40 Hz. Gamma rhythms are thought to represent the binding of different populations of neurons together into a network for the purpose of carrying out a certain cognitive or motor function.
Most reliable discriminants in QEEG
- Theta/Beta ratio is the gold standard for executive function. In non-elders, it is used as screening for ADHD, while in elders it predicts progression to dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s) if there are memory issues.
- Frontal laterality for mood and anxiety
- Eyes closed Beta frequencies for anxiety, hyperarousal, pain syndromes
- Eyes open slow frequencies (Delta, Theta, Alpha) for brain fog and fatigue. Normally, these slow frequencies are present when we close the eyes, but when we open the eyes Alpha is suppressed and replaced with Beta. If when we open our eyes, our visual system is stuck in Alpha, this is a sign of inattention or ADD; if there is a lot of Theta, it is called ADHD.
- High Theta state means impulsive, novelty-seeking behavior, which might or not be a problem.
- Alpha speed is a measure of processing speed. It increases until 25 years old and decreases after 60. If it is more than 1 SD slower than people your age, working memory is impaired.
- Delta speed increases with sleep deprivation.
- “Hot spots” over cortical regions suggest performance bottlenecks like OCD, PTSD, over-arousal, sleep, pain, problems settling down, sensory and social, or language difficulties.
- Brain mapping can also predict, within 1 week, if antidepressant medication is going to work.
Why do we look at the executive function?
We all wanna operate at a peak level. Executive function is a proxy for other resources in the brain – supervisory attention, planning and execution, sensory integration, etc. It is a robust and complex phenomena, and can be impaired in many forms of pathology such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and substance abuse. It is a good overall indicator of brain function, regulated primarily by frontal lobe but requires broad cortical and basal ganglia resources.
What research shows
Many published research studies showed that neurofeedback is effective in the following situations:
- ADHD and learning disability
- Autism and Asperger’s
- Anxiety, OCD, PTSD
- Sleep issues
- TBI, concussion
- Alcohol recovery
- Peak performance and intelligence
- Creativity and disassociation
Neurofeedback is a complex topic, and I hope by now you have a better understanding of how it works and some of its power. For more detailed information, watch Dr. Hill’s talk at the Biohacker Summit in Stockholm below:
If you want to join for a similar session, this is now possible on 17 October in Toronto, Canada. More information and registration here.
Dr. Andrew Hill is a gerontologist, QEEG and neurofeedback expert. He has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, is the founder and director of the Peak Brain Institute and a lecturer at UCLA. You can attend his talk at the upcoming Biohacker Summit on 14-16 October 2018 in Toronto.
This article was written by Evguenia Alechine, PhD.