“What is neurofeedback?” I asked.
“It’s brain training,” he said, “it’s like a gymnastic workout for the brain.”
Hmm. Somehow the idea that my brain—overactive anyway—could benefit from a gymnastic workout didn’t quite resonate. I’m all in favor of trying alternative treatments for insomnia. But it seemed to me that what I needed was not mental calisthenics but rather something more like a soothing brain massage!
Over the years, that acquaintance, Bob Egri, owner of Solutions Counseling and Neurofeedback Center in Ann Arbor, became a friend. But only yesterday did I finally get around to visiting his office and hearing what he had to say about neurofeedback and sleep problems.
“Neurofeedback focuses on teaching the brain how to better regulate itself,” Egri said. “When it doesn’t regulate itself well, all kinds of problems show up. When you teach the brain how to better regulate itself, one of the first things that falls into place is sleep. What we expect is that the person will be able to experience deep, restorative sleep.”
What Neurofeedback Consists Of
Once you’re seated in a comfy chair, sensors attached to wires are placed on your scalp and ears in order to capture information about your brainwaves. The wires travel through a box and then into a computer, so the therapist can monitor what’s going on.
There are several neurofeedback programs, and all seek to modify the functioning of the brain in different ways. With one program, you simply watch a movie.
“When the computer program picks up a problem—that the brain is working inefficiently—it will briefly interrupt the movie–that’s the feedback–and the interruption is so slight that the person might not be conscious of it. Yet in this way, we’ve signaled to the brain that there’s a problem here.” With repeated exposure to interruptions, Egri said, “the brain really starts to learn how to do things differently, more efficiently,” on its own.
“The great thing about the whole system is that there’s nothing for you to do except sit back and watch the movie. Your brain and the computer do all the work,” Egri said.
Is This Too Good to Be True?
There is solid research showing that neurofeedback is helpful in treating ADHD, epilepsy, and addictions. But research on the effects of neurofeedback on sleep is scarce. A few preliminary studies suggest it may be useful in treating insomnia.
- Investigators in Portland, OR, found that the eight insomnia subjects who completed 15 20-minute sessions of neurofeedback training (four subjects dropped out) were normal sleepers by the end of the training.
- A study in Belgium found that nine insomnia subjects who went through a neurofeedback training program were able to fall asleep more quickly and sleep longer by the end of the training.
- Austrian researchers studied 27 subjects without sleep problems. Those trained to enhance the amplitude of middle frequency brainwaves (12-15 Hz) fell asleep more quickly than they had before treatment, and they improved on memory tasks.
None of these studies proves that neurofeedback works for insomnia. But they do suggest that among alternative treatments it holds promise. It might be worth checking out.
Does this kind of therapy sound appealing to you? Why or why not?