History of Neurofeedback

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It all started in the 1960's when Dr. Barry Sterman, a researcher at UCLA, California, was conducting research which evaluated neurological activity associated with sleep. Dr Sterman assessed brain activity using the electroencephalogram (EEG). When Sterman and his colleagues were monitoring the brain activity of the cats they were studying, they noticed a new EEG pattern. A particular type of brain activity of approximately 14 Hertz (Hz) (14 times per second), occurred as recurrent bursts of activity. These recurrent bursts were associated with reduction of muscle tension in the cats. This activity was subsequently labeled sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) as it was recorded from an area of the brain called the sensorimotor cortex.

The researchers were fascinated by this discovery and investigated whether the cats could increase the occurrence of this activity if they were rewarded with milk each time the burst of SMR activity was produced. The research team were successful as within a short space of time the cats were generating an abundance of the activity. This discovery is frequently cited as being the first time that brain activity was trained in such a direct manner.

Following the sleep study, Dr Sterman conducted research for NASA, evaluating the toxicity of rocket fuel, which, when exposed to resulted in severe headache, nausea, hyperventilation, hallucinations, and seizures. Dr Sterman's research group exposed cats to increasing amounts of the fuel and typically found a sequence of vomiting, vocalizing, hyperventilation, salivating, seizures, and death. To their surprise, one group of cats exhibited an atypical pattern of responses as they managed to suppress the seizure activity at much higher levels of dosage than was tolerated by all of the other cats. This confused the researchers so they went through each cat's history and discovered that those cats that were much more tolerant to the fuel had been trained in the sleep study, i.e., they had been trained to increase the amount of SMR. The conclusion was that the SMR training had improved the resilience of the cats' brains. The research group replicated the effect with other animals before deciding to explore applications with human subjects.

The first application with human populations was performed with epileptic patients experiencing severe seizures not manageable with medication, since the animal studies showed that training reduced seizure activity. The human study subsequently used a neurofeedback training protocol based upon the procedure utilized in the animal studies. 60% of the treatment group responded positively, with an average of 60% reduction in seizure activity, following training. The effects also endured for most of the participants. These findings were published in 1972 by Sterman and Friar. Dr Sterman has subsequently published over 160 paper focusing on the brain's ability to acquire new and better patterns of responses through neurofeedback.

Dr Sterman's findings were also replicated by Dr. Joel Lubar of the University of Tennessee. Lubar noticed that one of Sterman's findings was that participants in the epilepsy study also reported reduced physical restlessness and reductions in hyperactivity behaviour. Lubar was interested in seeing if neurofeedback training could also be used to treat populations exhibiting hyperactivity. This formed the beginning of research into the application of neurofeedback training for ADHD.

Another line of neurofeedback research also started in the late 1960's when Joe Kamiya (1968) demonstrated that people can be trained to control their production of alpha brain wave activity. Participants in these early studies reported increased feelings of inner calmness and variants of these alpha protocols are now used for stress management training.

               Copyright 2006