Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Mood Ring for the Mind

Many fads gain popularity for unknown reasons.  Remember polyester leisure suits, beanie babies, or pet rocks?  Thank goodness, most of them fade back into wherever they came from pretty quickly.  A few have staying power and even prove to be visionary.

Mood rings are an example of this.  They were actually an early form of biofeedback.  Biofeedback is a therapy in which people are taught to improve health and performance using signals generated by their own bodies such as heart rate and breathing.  NASA and top athletes have been benefiting from biofeedback for years.

Neurofeedback is a specialized form of biofeedback in which a person physically learns to alter their brainwaves.  The learning occurs at a subconscious level and is permanent.  It has been used successfully for many conditions where the brain is not functioning optimally including chronic anxiety, autism, ADHD, depression, brain injuries, addictive disorders, seizure disorders, learning disabilities and more.  It can also be used just to perfect and heighten focus and concentration such as required in school or in playing golf or other sports.

I can say that neurofeedback has undoubtedly made the most dramatic difference for me in my recovery.  I started doing neurofeedback 14 months after my brain injury.  My practitioner has told me stories about people 13 years post injury having remarkably successful results.  It is never too late for your brain to learn.

In neurofeedback, EEG sensors are put on the head and ears.  Think good blackmail pictures.  The EEG reads the amount of electrical energy put out by the brain in the form of brainwaves at the different sites.  Just like a radio station, the electricity is measured in terms of "frequency."  The brainwaves are monitored by computer software that processes the EEG information and provides feedback to the person.

Feedback can come in several forms.  It can be in the context of a video game and, when the set criteria are met, a rocket ship goes faster or a pac man gobbles up dots more frantically.  When the brain does not meet the desired levels, the game slows and the reward stops.  With practice, the brain learns to regulate itself and this actually produces permanent physiological changes allowing the brain to perform differently and to continue to make adjustments when not training.

I have done it so much, that all I get these days is a lousy little "ding" and the technical computer screen - no fancy games to entertain me anymore.  I have learned to read these and to watch the raw EEG data to monitor my own performance and train my brain.

Because it is a learning process, the results of neurofeedback occur gradually over time.  For me, my thoughts and my speech which had been separate with a time delay in between, if you can even imagine, came together and became simultaneous within 10 sessions. Shortly after I began neurofeedback, I  started sleeping soundly and deeply.  Until then, my sleep had been fitful and not restful. I spent a lot of time just staring at the ceiling and took way too many baths when I should have been sleeping.  I know that sleeping more contiguously and productively allowed my brain to really start doing some serious healing.

We would train specific areas of my motor strip, and I could physically feel the corresponding areas of my body waking up with what I have come to technically call "the tinglies."  At first, my gait was somewhat spastic, my coordination was kind of jerky and my balance was definitely off.  Now, my movement is much more natural and fluid, and, while I am probably not going to go dancing anytime soon, I could still do a mean robot.

Once I saw that it was really doing something pretty miraculous, I did neurofeedback as much as I could, up to 4 times a week.  Currently, I am doing it twice a week.  I do foresee the day when I do not feel that I need it at all, but, for now, I continue to see benefits and results.

This summer, we did neurofeedback treatments on my oldest son pretty intensely while he was here with me.  I see it as an investment in his future.  He does not have any diagnosed disorder.  He has reported that he can tell improvements in his concentration for schoolwork and that he just feels calmer and less reactive emotionally.  I think his younger brother has less bruises to prove it.

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