I’d been wanting to try neurofeedback for several years, so when I met a leader in the field in the jungles of Costa Rica, I was elated when he offered to scan my brain.
Neurofeedback (NF) is a revolutionary treatment for treating diseases of the brain. Also known as electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback, it’s a non-invasive method using computers to reduce specific complaints in brain-related conditions. Neurofeedback specifically refers to biofeedback interventions using brainwave readings also know as an EEG.
It’s a passive process, no energy of any kind is put into the skull. This sets it apart from any other form of central nervous system therapy. Some form of feedback is presented to the subject, and the feedback is used to reinforce or shape the EEG waves into a more efficient position using operant conditioning.
This treatment differs from traditional pharmacology in that neurofeedback focuses on a recognizable brain pattern and gives the patient the ability to change it. At its core, neurofeedback is a learning tool. By giving your patient the tools to change their own brain, it provides a path to self-efficacy. How empowering is that?
Brainwaves, however, have not always been accepted as a quantifiable metric. It has taken years for the mainstream medical system to begrudgingly accept the idea that a computer can help the brain regulate itself.
“Although still a step-child of modern medicine, NF is now at least known to general medical practitioners,” explains Fred S. Starr, M.D., a Neuroscientist and Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist who has been connecting brains to computers for almost 30 years. His early work in developmental neurobiology began his quest for answers about how the human brain works.
As a medical doctor whose areas of expertise include PTSD, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, attention issues and brain injuries, Starr envisions NF being used alongside other first-line treatments for neuropsychiatric symptoms. He views the EEG as a fast, economical, and efficient tool to open a window into an individual brain’s electrical rhythm and bring psychiatry into the 21st century.
If you are battling with issues that impact the brain such as anxiety, sleep problems, or PTSD, doesn’t it make sense to look at the actual organ in question and see how it’s functioning, or not functioning?
Typically in the medical mainstream, if someone complains, what’s often prescribed is simply a pill, psychiatry or talk therapy. “Consider the folly of failing to at least consider the function of the patient’s brain when you can be using that information to further help you draw a prognosis or protocol,” adds Starr.
Early in his career, Dr. Starr, who used to dole out drugs as part of his psychiatric practice, noticed more results when neurofeedback was combined with pills than with pills alone. This, however, didn’t make him very popular among his peers. When Starr lost his young daughter, Anna, it was a life-changing experience that led him to question everything he thought he knew. He then found himself leaving the medical establishment to find himself again and forge his own way.
Neurofeedback is showing promise in helping to design more effective treatment protocols and paradigms for psychiatric conditions. It’s also being applied to neurological illnesses such as epilepsy, stroke, Alzheimer’s — the full gambit of various neurological conditions, adds Dr. Starr.
Which Brain-Related Conditions Can Neurofeedback Potentially Offer Solutions To?
Research has shown that neurofeedback may also be a potentially useful intervention for symptoms of brain-related conditions and diseases of the brain, such as:
- Attention Deficit Disorder
- Impulse Control Disorders
- Sleeping Disorders
- Speech-Language Problems
Slip The Yellow Cap On: Peeking Into My Brain
While living in Costa Rica in January 2019, I befriended someone who’d suffered neurological issues from cerebral malaria. Using neurofeedback, Starr was able to detect that entire regions of his brain were completely asleep, and he then used neurofeedback to help wake them up.
When the brain gets damaged from an insult or illness, Starr explained, the tissue does not die. It goes into a dormant state of resting hyperpolarization. “This means the cells will not fire, this area is known as a penumbra and represents sheets of neuronal tissue locked in a pattern of firing in slow delta waves, this is akin to having a part of the brain that is sleeping.”
I wanted to scan my own brain in the hopes that Starr could further explain why I often woke up in the night and help return me to uninterrupted sleep. According to research, sleep is one of the first areas of self-regulation that begins to improve with neurofeedback.
Starr, who has been described as the Frank Sinatra of EEGs, picked me up in the beach town of Dominical and drove us to his ‘ivory tower,’ which sits 300 meters above the Pacific Ocean. There, no external electromotive forces (EMF) would interfere with my scan or testing in his personal EEG lab.
Starr decided to leave civilization about a decade ago and has been living in different tropical locations. In cities, EEG amplifiers need special shielding to prevent all of the external electrical signals in air from interfering with the brain signal going into the computer. In the hills of the Osa in Costa Rica, there is nothing to interfere with the purest EEG signals.
In addition to helping doctors, businesses, universities, and individuals acquire research-grade EEG’s, Starr has developed an EEG artificial intelligence (AI) reading assistant to assist in neuropsychiatric diagnosis. He began with process bots that filed quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) and assisted with the output of reports. This assisted with the busy work associated with building reports, which is often time-consuming and limits the number of people Starr can help at once. Gradually the system began to take shape and analyze scans under his tutelage while improving as it taught itself.
“I named my invention ANNA (Advanced Neural Network Analysis), in honor of my daughter. ANNA is a fully functional Neuropsychiatrist. She is revolutionary in the field of Neuropsychiatry,” he explains in his upcoming book Neurofeedback: The First 50 Years
ANNA provides actionable data for patient management in the primary care setting and is constantly learning and expanding.
Do Certain Geographical Regions Of The World Produce Better Brains?
Over the years, Starr’s patients have varied from displaying peak performance to being barely verbal. His clients range in age from 3 years old to 105 years old, and are located all across the globe. From Starr’s personal observation of scanning more than 20,000 brains, he’s determined that some regions produce “better brains”, such as people in China, he told me as he placed a yellow cap and connected electrodes to the central, parietal, and occipital regions of my brain.
Before he attached me to his computer, we started with a series of cognitive exercises. His goal was to measure how quickly I process information and solve problems. I felt like I was taking the LSAT all over again!
An Assessment And Two-Dimensional Map Of My Brain
With the cap attached, Starr then asked me to relax and breathe and then do the same with eyes closed while the computer read my brain’s electrical signals. After looking at my brain squiggles on the monitor and doing an assessment as to what was going on, he monitored my brain as I watched a movie and told me to play, which I literally did by focusing and staying alert and present. Pretty cool — I was making the movie play with my mind! In the other room, Starr was tinkering with the metrics and guiding me to exercise specific pathways. Making the film play creates positive reinforcement.
Afterward, Starr shared his expert analysis while loading my data into ANNA for her assessment.
As we looked at a two-dimensional map of my brain, he explained that the computer spots deviations based on the normative brain database, an exhaustive worldwide study of normal brain function conducted in the 1970s and 80s.
According to my scans, the computer picked up my brain at 9 Hertz. Starr then noticed some problems with spatial processing, which I confirmed. It’s always taken me longer to troubleshoot spatial tasks in my mind. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to mastering the Rubik’s Cube — I knew this was an area that needed work.
Next, Starr observed that while my eyes-opened scan was relatively normal, there was a 2.3 deviation when my eyes were closed, illustrating Alpha Block. While this sounds like a manual to help women deal with macho men, it really means that the alpha rhythm is the prominent EEG wave pattern when my eyes are closed. Thus, instead of getting the wave-like synchronized pattern of alpha waves, desynchronization of alpha block occurs. Basically, there’s an arousal of the cortex to a higher state of alertness or tension, which is what might be interfering with my sleep
“Whenever you blink, your brain is not resetting. The brain refuses to downshift when your eyes are closed, which is what should happen.”
This vigilance, surmised Starr, was definitely contributing to my regular awakenings and inability to stay in REM or deep sleep. He agreed that the unusually stressful year was certainly a variable, given that the body remembers trauma (Look into The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment). My original trauma was getting hit by an SUV while navigating a crosswalk in 2002.
Using visual interpretation, Starr also noticed problems with my delta waves, which govern sleep. Brainwaves are categorized according to their frequency, or “speed,” of oscillation. Delta waves are the slowest waves and predominate in sleep.
Most of my brain’s activity is centered around Brodmann area 40, the region in the inferior parietal lobe involved in reading and phonology. While this is not a common occurrence, it’s a very cool area where you associate everything sensory,” Starr points out. “When the brain fires faster in frontal lobes you are more alert and aware, in the middle is less, and when it’s firing in Delta in the back, you’re asleep.”
Next, we looked to the data from ANNA, which also pointed to higher concentrations of frontal lobe alpha activity, and which she analyzed as contributing to depression and concentration issues. We know from research that lack of sleep is correlated with higher rates of depression. Astute ANNA spotted some social defiance too. It turns out that oppositionality and passivity along with a great number of other features can be predicted through the use of EEG. Dr. Starr calls this emerging field, Encephalometrics, a term Starr has invented to describe what he is doing with ANNA.
“She is a parallel reading assistant to parlay with what the doctor assesses,” Starr reminded me.
In regards to my mottled sleep, I also suspect that given my history and what I know about functional medicine and our toxic world that I am contending with biotoxins and mycotoxins. Recently, I’ve been exploring how lingering toxicity impacts the brain, which is more common than we think. I recommend listening to the Toxic Mold Summit. With that said, the scan could not confirm whether I am suffering from poisons in my brain.
After our session, Starr assessed that sessions could decrease the level of frontal alpha activity, along with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), an integrative psychotherapy approach proven effective for the treatment of trauma. Many people over the years had suggested I try EMDR — traveling across town in Los Angeles and losing a good chunk of the work day was always a factor.
Starr painted a scenario where I didn’t need to leave my home to upgrade my brain functioning.
How To Hack Your Brain From Home
Fortunately, you don’t have to go to Costa Rica to try neurofeedback. Remote neurofeedback (rNFB) allows you to hack and heal your own brain from a location of your choosing.
In 2016, Starr started a company called Myneurva, which uses advanced neurofeedback FDA-approved and calibrated hardware and next-generation NFB training software combined with ANNA. The company operates remote brain systems from hubs in seven countries, offering neurofeedback from anywhere you want, be it your office, home or even garden. As long as you’re in a place that allows you to focus and connect to the internet, you’re able to follow neurofeedback therapy guided by a team of neurofeedback specialists.
Who would this be for?
“Anybody with a brain,” says Starr, “I know that is cliche but it’s true. Who is the gym good for? Who are brain exercises for?”
Take Samantha Simons from the U.K., who resolved her anxiety with rNFB after only 10 sessions. She turned to NF after witnessing it help her teenage daughter’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Neurofeedback is well tolerated and the majority of patients begin to experience noticeable relief from symptoms by the 10th session. One dose of rNFB consists of 20 sessions.
“Doctors wanted to put her on Ritalin but I refused. Now the school can’t even understand how she got better,” says Simons. Impressed, she decided to try it herself.
Myneurva is able to mail a system to clients anywhere in order to perform the neurofeedback at home. Secondly, they’ve created additional “hubs” with local doctors where the individual goes to the office and performs remote neurofeedback. Currently, one set of 20 sessions costs $4500 but Starr and his team are working to get this accepted by insurance.
“Now I am a ‘Grow,’’ not a ‘Shrink,.’” Starr says in his upcoming book Neurofeedback: The First 50 Years. “We all need to stop shrinking. We must experience the full sense of ourselves, reach our peak levels of performance, and seek our life’s purpose.”
Amen to that!
What is Neurofeedback?