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Addiction is a complex disease that manifests both physically and mentally, deeply embedding compulsive behaviors into the very architecture of the brain.

While traditional talk therapies and medication aim to support recovery from the outside in, neurofeedback holds promise as one of the first treatment modalities to address addiction directly at its source – by allowing patients to reclaim control of neural waves from the inside out.

Through real-time brain monitoring, neurofeedback aims to strengthen self-regulation ability and reshape neurological risk patterns associated with substance dependence

But does the science substantiate its use for addiction? 

This article explores what neurofeedback entails, current research on its impact, and whether it shows promise as a recovery support technique.

Before we explore the potential impact of neurofeedback on addiction, it’s important to understand the nature of addiction itself. 

Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a multifaceted issue that is often misunderstood by those who have not been directly affected by it. 

Addiction is not merely a matter of weak willpower or a lack of moral character; it is a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has accepted the brain disease model of addiction, which suggests that drug and alcohol abuse can lead to structural changes in the brain that make it difficult for individuals to stop using drugs or alcohol. 

These changes can lead to a physical dependence on the substance, making it difficult for the individual to control their use of it. 

The initial use of drugs or alcohol is typically a voluntary decision, but over time, the brain can adapt to the presence of the substance, leading to a shift from voluntary use to habitual use

This can occur as a result of changes in the brain’s reward system, which can lead to a cycle of craving and use that is difficult to break.

Many individuals who struggle with addiction may also be experiencing mental health concerns, conditions, or disorders. 

In some cases, these individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms. 

While this may provide temporary relief, it can ultimately exacerbate the problem and make it more difficult to overcome the addiction.

What is Neurofeedback?

therapy
Image Credit: addictionresource.com

Neurofeedback is a cutting-edge therapeutic technique that leverages real-time monitoring of brainwave activity to regulate and optimize neural function. 

Rooted in the understanding that the brain is remarkably adaptable, neurofeedback aims to train individuals to self-regulate their brain activity, promoting healthier patterns and potentially alleviating various neurological and psychological conditions.

Known by various names such as neuro-biofeedback, neuro-therapy, brainwave biofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, this process is favored for its non-invasive nature. 

Both providers and recipients of neurofeedback treatment attest to its safety and painless application.

The core principle of neurofeedback lies in operant conditioning – the same learning process that underlies habitual behaviors. 

As individuals receive feedback about their brainwave activity, they can consciously or subconsciously make adjustments, gradually reshaping their brain’s responses over time.

A skilled neurofeedback practitioner possesses the ability to identify healthy electrical activity patterns. 

In instances of abnormal patterns, they collaborate with the client to restore optimal balance in the affected areas of the brain. 

Successful neurofeedback results in the transformation of abnormal brain wave patterns into more typical, healthy ones.

This noninvasive and medication-free treatment has exhibited efficacy in addressing a spectrum of neurological issues, including addiction, anxiety, insomnia, concussion, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, movement disorders, and stroke/aneurysm. 

How Does Neurofeedback Work?

The brain contains billions of specialized cells called neurons that communicate via electrical and chemical signals. 

These neurons produce different types of brainwaves, which are categorized based on their frequency or speed.

Brainwaves provide insight into cognitive processes, emotional states, stress levels, and overall brain functioning. 

Imbalances or excess amounts of certain wave patterns have been associated with different psychological disorders and conditions.

Common neurofeedback protocols concentrate on the ratios between certain waves, such as increasing calming alpha waves about busy beta activity.

Neurofeedback uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s electrical activity through electrodes placed non-invasively on the scalp. 

EEG data is compared to norms in a database to assess whether an individual’s brainwave patterns are similar to healthy profiles.

As EEG is recorded, the data is processed and delivered back to the patient through audio and/or visual feedback mechanisms like sounds or videos. 

The feedback system rewards productive brain wave expression by making the audio or visuals more enjoyable. 

Over multiple sessions, this conditioning process helps neurons learn to fire together in a new, optimized arrangement. 

The goal is to train the brain to reproduce health-affirming frequencies on its own by encouraging their growth. 

Is Neurofeedback Effective for Addiction?

Yes, neurofeedback is effective in treating addiction. 

Research has found that individuals with addiction have specific brainwave imbalances, which can be addressed through neurofeedback training. 

By generating a brain map in the areas where there is abnormal electrical activity, a neurofeedback specialist can create a training program to correct inactivity, underactivity, or overactivity. As the brain learns to regulate itself better, the symptoms of addiction begin to reduce.

Studies have consistently shown that neurofeedback boosts the rate of abstinence in individuals struggling with addiction. 

For example, a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that EEG biofeedback treatment in combination with a 12-step program significantly improved the rates of sobriety at the one-year recovery mark. 

The study suggests that EEG treatment helps keep the brain’s cortex active during the change process, making it easier for individuals to transition from addiction to recovery.

Furthermore, studies show that neurofeedback can retrain the addicted brain to match those without addiction. This training can be an effective relapse prevention tool. 

Neurofeedback also can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms for different addictive substances. 

It also enhances general mental health factors like mood and stress resilience that act as protective factors against substance relapse.

In an experimental study carried out to examine the effectiveness of neurofeedback for opiate dependence disorder, researchers found that neurofeedback decreases cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and improves general mental health in opiate-dependent patients.

Neurofeedback sessions are most productive for recovering addicts who opt to train their brains back to a state conducive to a drug-free life. 

By retraining the brain to function normally, neurofeedback can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for individuals to maintain their sobriety.

What Happens in a Neurofeedback Session?

Neurofeedback Session
Image Credit: inspiremalibu.com

A neurofeedback session typically begins with a consultation where the client meets with the practitioner to discuss their treatment goals and any underlying health concerns in detail. 

This initial discussion is important for developing a customized neurofeedback protocol tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

During the session itself, small sensor electrodes are attached non-invasively to the scalp using a conductive gel or paste to record real-time data about the client’s brain wave activity through electroencephalography (EEG). 

These lightweight, painless sensors allow the neurofeedback practitioner to observe the current patterns and amplitudes of different brain wave states such as alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves being produced in various regions of the brain.

The client then engages in an activity while their brain waves are monitored, such as playing a video game or watching a video. 

Tasks are chosen strategically based on the desired protocol.

As the client performs the activity, specialized software analyzes the EEG reading and provides feedback, usually in the form of visual or auditory cues, which are linked to producing healthier brain wave states.

For example, the client may hear a pleasant tone or see a reward animation when lowering excess theta waves. 

This operant conditioning process trains the brain through real-time reward.

For multiple 20-60 minute sessions, typically one session per week, clients learn through operant conditioning to voluntarily self-regulate their brain activity in the targeted regions and frequencies without external feedback cues. 

Treatment courses usually consist of 20-40 sessions total to help reshape dysfunctional neural pathways and facilitate long-lasting changes in processing and self-regulation.

Risks and Drawbacks of Neurofeedback Therapy

Here are some potential risks and drawbacks of neurofeedback therapy to be aware of:

1. Cost and Accessibility

Treatment can involve 20-40 sessions or more, making it expensive compared to traditional talk therapy or medication. 

It also may not be covered by all health insurance plans. Finding a qualified neurofeedback practitioner can be difficult in some areas as well.

2. Time Commitment

Sessions typically last 30-60 minutes at minimum once per week for several months. 

Maintaining consistency with this long-term time commitment can be challenging for some schedules. Home practice may also be required between visits.

3. No Guarantee of Permanence

While neurofeedback aims to impart lasting changes, results may fluctuate depending on circumstances like stress levels. 

Symptom reduction benefits are not assured, and occasional “booster” sessions may still be needed. As with any therapy, full cooperation is important.

4. Possibility of Side Effects

Temporary side effects like headaches, sleep changes, or irritability are possible with initial sessions. 

People with epilepsy or metal implants may not be candidates for this therapy. Neurofeedback is also not meant as a stand-alone treatment for severe issues.

Nonetheless, the lack of serious health risks makes neurofeedback a relatively safe option. 

However, the expenses, accessibility limitations, and degree of required dedication are important factors for potential clients to discuss carefully with their practitioner.

Can Neurofeedback Be Combined with Other Therapies?

Yes, neurofeedback can be effectively combined with other therapies to enhance its effectiveness in treating various mental health issues. 

Many practitioners believe that neurofeedback works best as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that may include additional psychotherapy, lifestyle modifications, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) when appropriate.

One of the most effective combinations of neurofeedback is medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

MAT uses specific medications to help treat addiction by alleviating cravings and withdrawal symptoms that can trigger relapse. 

By pairing neurofeedback training with these evidence-based medications, patients benefit from both the neurological retraining effects and reduced physiological cravings. 

This combination approach provides maximum support during the critical initial rehabilitation period and beyond.

In addition to MAT, neurofeedback can also be combined with talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This combination can help individuals to better manage their symptoms, improve their mood, and enhance their overall well-being.

This approach can also help to address a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

While neurofeedback shows promise as an adjunctive therapy, it’s important to note that no single method provides a cure on its own. 

However, by combining neurofeedback with other therapies, individuals can learn self-regulation strategies that let them better cope with triggers and sustain recovery even after medication tapering with the addition of continued therapy and lifestyle changes.

Conclusion

Neurofeedback is a promising approach to treating addiction. 

By retraining the brain to function normally, neurofeedback can reduce symptoms of addiction and promote long-term recovery. 

While it is not a standalone treatment, neurofeedback can be a valuable tool when combined with other therapies, such as counseling and medication-assisted treatment. 

As research continues to support the effectiveness of neurofeedback in addiction treatment, this approach will likely become increasingly popular in the future.

FAQ’s:

1. Is neurofeedback painful or invasive?

Neurofeedback is a non-invasive and painless procedure. It involves the use of sensors or electrodes placed on the scalp to monitor brain activity.
There are no needles, surgical procedures, or discomfort associated with the process.

2. Are there age limitations for neurofeedback treatment?

Neurofeedback can be used across various age groups, from children to older adults. However, the specific protocols and techniques may be adapted to suit the needs of different age brackets. 
It is essential to work with a qualified practitioner who can tailor the treatment to the individual’s age and requirements.

3. Is neurofeedback covered by insurance?

Insurance coverage for neurofeedback can vary significantly. While some insurance providers may offer partial coverage, others may not cover it at all. 
It’s advisable to check with your insurance company and the neurofeedback practitioner to determine your coverage options and potential out-of-pocket expenses.

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