Neurotherapy: Treating Disorders by Retraining the Brain

There still exists a number of psychiatric, neurologic, and other brain-related disorders without highly effective treatment. Could neurotherapy hold the key to treating such diseases? Neurotherapy, while still very early in its development, has already shown efficacy in altering brain function to provide relief to patients suffering from a range of disorders. This article will discuss the current state of neurotherapy, as well as promising research for potential future applications. 

What is neurotherapy?

Neurotherapy refers to any neurotechnology with a therapeutic application. Although neurotherapies are largely still in the research and development phase and are mostly used as experimental treatments in clinical settings, they have already shown effectiveness for treating a range of mental and neurological illnesses. 

How does neurotherapy work?

Neurotherapy involves “rewiring” neurons to improve brain function in some way. Common applications include mood disorder management, cognitive learning and performance improvement, and addiction or habit management. 

Neurotherapy can work in several different ways, including the following:

  • Neuron healing: In the case of brain injury or damage, neurotherapy seeks to heal damaged brain cells.
  • Neurostimulation: Stimulation such as that of electroconvulsive therapy can help revive inactive circuits or regions of the brain that need to regain function to improve brain performance. 
  • Neuromodulation: Neurotherapy using neurostimulation, sometimes with neurofeedback, to help modulate the activity in the brain or other regions of the nervous system in response to signals. 

Each of these modes of therapy seeks to help rewire brain circuits to improve or restore normal brain function. 

Who uses neurotherapy?

A wide range of people experiencing abnormal brain function that is affecting their quality of life may benefit from neurotherapy. Recipients of neurotherapy might include:

  • Survivors of brain injury, tumor, or stroke: People who have experienced some form of brain damage resulting in decreased brain function may benefit from neurotherapy to modulate brain wave activity. 
  • Patients with movement disorders: Patients with movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or spinal cord injury, can benefit from neurotherapy such as neurofeedback training, which helps the patient’s nervous system reorganize residual neural pathways to improve motor function. 
  • Patients with psychological disorders: Patients experiencing decreased quality of life due to psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also benefit from neurotherapy like neurofeedback training. 

Where is neurotherapy typically used?

Clinical practitioners of neurotherapy include therapists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and physicians. Neurotherapy typically takes place in a clinical office setting. If the mode of neurotherapy includes techniques or exercises for the patient to practice on their own, those portions of the neurotherapy routine can take place in the patient’s home. 

How neurotherapy can help improve brain function

Neurotherapy is attractive to some sufferers of mental and neurological illness because it is a treatment that does not involve pharmaceuticals and their potentially dangerous side effects. Instead, it helps train the patient’s brain to alter suboptimal brain wave activity. Studies have largely supported the effectiveness of neurotherapy, although significant further research is needed. 

How does neurotherapy help with brain function?

Neurotherapy trains a patient’s brain to produce more normal or optimal brain wave patterns. There are a number of neurotechnologies with therapeutic applications that achieve this goal in a variety of ways. 

For example, neurofeedback therapy helps to rewire brain wave activity through positive reinforcement. When the patient’s brain produces optimal activity, the positive reinforcement will start; when the brain waves are not optimal, the positive reinforcement will stop. The patient can gradually rewire his or her brain for more normal brain activity through this form of therapy. 

What specific functions of the brain can neurotherapy target?

Many different mental disorders are characterized by specific patterns of brain activity. By using brain mapping and neurofeedback, clinicians can identify a patient’s brain activity and seek to alter brain waves to a healthier pattern. 

Disordered brain activity is commonly the result of an imbalance of low frequency brain waves and high frequency brain waves. Many psychological disorders are caused by this imbalance. For example, people suffering from attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have excessive low frequency (theta) brain waves and not enough high frequency (beta) brain waves within certain regions of the cortex. Similarly, people suffering from depression may have an excess of theta brain wave activity in the frontal lobes. 

Neurotherapy can target an imbalance of brain waves in specific regions of the brain by using positive reinforcement to help boost normal brain wave activity. For example, neurofeedback can measure brain wave activity and provide positive reinforcement when the patient uses optimal brain wave activity in the targeted regions of the brain. 

How can neurofeedback be used to treat disease?

Neurofeedback is the most widely used form of neurotherapy. During neurofeedback therapy, electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors measure a patient’s brain activity as he or she engages in a simple exercise like a computer game. When the patient’s brain shows optimal brain wave activity, the game or other exercise will start; when brain wave activity is less optimal, the exercise will stop. 

Neurofeedback works by rewarding the brain for producing optimal brain wave activity, helping the patient intuitively begin to use optimal brain circuitry in order to rewire neural pathways. 

Neurotherapy for difficult health problems

Neurotherapy is an exciting prospect for patients who have not found success with other forms of treatment. Although next-generation neurotherapies are likely still ten to twenty years away, current neurotherapies are already helping people who have failed to find effective treatment options elsewhere. 

What health conditions can be helped with neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback has produced positive results for people suffering from ADD/ADHD, as well as other mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

Neurofeedback has also shown effectiveness in treating movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. 

A 2019 study showed that this form of neurotherapy may be effective for mitigating symptoms such as pain, fatigue, depression, and sleep problems in cancer patients, although further research is needed. 

Neurofeedback also appears to have been used successfully to treat miscellaneous problems that affect people’s quality of life, such as lack of focus and motivation, sleep problems, and anger management problems. 

How can neurotherapy help with cognitive disabilities, learning disorders, or other health problems?

Although still in its initial stages, neurofeedback for learning disabilities has suggested success in several small studies. This neurotherapy has potential to be useful in treating learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. 

There have also been several studies researching neurofeedback for age-related cognitive decline. Specific EEG markers are associated with age-related cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so these studies have focused on whether these forms of cognitive decline can be slowed or reversed by rewiring brain activity. Studies have indeed shown improvements in age-related cognitive decline through neurofeedback. 

How is neurotherapy effective for treating depression?

Numerous studies, including this 2019 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, have shown that neurofeedback is effective in reducing symptoms of depression

Those suffering from depression, as well as other mood disorders, typically experience higher brain wave activity in the right frontal region of the brain rather than the left frontal area. Researchers have used this finding to target those areas of the brain in order to decrease activity in the right frontal lobe and increase brain waves in the left frontal region. 

Multiple controlled studies have shown that using neurofeedback therapy to train the brain to be more active in the left frontal region than the right is effective in reducing depression symptoms.

Neurofeedback has also proved effective in treating other symptoms often related to depression, such as anxiety, sleep problems, and focus or motivation problems. 

Latest research in neurotherapy

Neurotherapy could well be a groundbreaking mainstream treatment option in the future. Not only that, but researchers are also studying how neurotherapy might be used to improve or enhance people’s lives beyond clinical applications. 

What are current trends in neurotherapy?

Neurotherapy is still in its early stages, and currently, psychiatric disorders are typically treated through medication and psychotherapy rather than neurotherapy. However, neurotherapy has become an experimental alternative to mainstream forms of treatment when a patient has not found relief through other avenues. Considerable research is also underway in the closely related field of motor rehabilitation therapies.

So far, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has permitted marketing for few medical neurofeedback devices. Examples include Neuropace, which is designed to prevent partial onset seizures; and the Monarch external Trigeminal Nerve Stimulation (eTNS) System, which treats ADHD in pediatric patients. Other than that, the FDA currently only allows neurofeedback devices to be marketed as stress reduction and relaxation instruments. With further research, neurofeedback devices may someday be FDA-approved to treat psychiatric conditions. 

What is currently in development in neurotherapy?

Neurotherapy holds the potential to treat a wide range of mental and neurological diseases in the future. Researchers are currently studying the ability of neurotherapy to treat diseases, including the following:

  • Schizophrenia: Several studies have shown that neurotherapy could help patients suffering from schizophrenia to rewire brain activity on specific frequencies, reducing auditory hallucinations in these patients. 
  • Addiction: Studies have demonstrated that neurotherapy can help rewire neural pathways related to a range of addictions, including cocaine addiction, alcohol addiction, and even addiction to computer games. 
  • Autism: Neurotherapy has shown promise in reducing a number of distressing symptoms in patients with autism, including anxiety, hyperactivity, attention problems, and impulsivity. 
  • Epilepsy: Studies have shown that providing neurofeedback at specific frequencies can help reduce rates of seizure in patients experiencing severe and uncontrolled epilepsy
  • Pain management: Researchers have posited that patients may be able to reduce or eliminate chronic pain sensations by learning self-regulation through neurotherapy. 
  • Eating disorders: Neurotherapy may be able to help treat brain dysregulation in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Some eating disorder treatment programs already use neurofeedback as part of their treatment protocol. 
  • Panic attacks: Neurotherapy may be able to help patients who suffer from panic attacks by training the brain to stop producing an excess of beta waves. Some clinicians are already offering neurotherapy as a treatment option for sufferers of panic attacks. 
  • Bipolar disorder: In 2017, researchers at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, published a paper showing that neurotherapy resulted in improved cognitive skills among patients suffering from bipolar disorder. 

Researchers are also studying the possibility of neurotherapy as a performance enhancer. Athletes, artists, and surgeons could potentially boost their performance through neurotherapy by rewiring brain activity to emulate the brain wave patterns of highly advanced professionals in their fields. 

Who is leading current research in neurotherapy?

In 2018, researchers from the Center for Neural Science at New York University, along with a professor from Rutgers University and a researcher from the Bio-Signal Group Corporation, published a study called “Cognitive Behavior Classification from Scalp EEG Signals.” In the study, performed by Dino Dvorak, Andrea Shang, Samah Abdel-Baki, Wendy Suzuki, and André A. Fenton, the researchers compared three common types of analytical measures for EEG signals in order to identify the advantages and disadvantages of each for conveying information about cognitive effort. This study could prove important in the brain-mapping phase of neurotherapy. 

A 2019 study published by three Roger Williams University researchers, called “A Computation Based Approach for Modeling the Efficacy of Neurostimulation Therapies on Neural Functioning,” sought to further understanding of exactly why neurostimulation is effective in treating patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders. The study, written by Kaia R. Lindberg, Abigail T. Small, and Edward T. Dougherty, simulated the effects neurostimulation has on neurons and how it triggers ion channel gating and transmembrane ionic flux. 

The future of neurotherapy

One day, neurotherapy could be one of the foremost treatments to provide relief from a number of diseases, including mental illnesses, neurological disorders, and other malfunctions of the brain, such as sleep disorders. Although neurotherapy is still an emerging field, its potential applications could someday change how we, as a society, relate to the brain and its malfunctions. 

Learn more about forthcoming developments in the field of neurotherapy with IEEE’s white paper, “Future Neural Therapeutics.”