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
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
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.