Biofeedback – The Promising New Treatment For Mental Health

Arizona Pain

When it comes to mental health, doctors and health experts are constantly in search for ways to find a cure for a variety of mental illnesses. They’re also looking for methods that may help maintain mental health. As for the latter, they may have discovered a new method – biofeedback.

Here’s a brief rundown of what has been discovered so far when it comes to biofeedback:

  1. A recent meta-analysis has shown positive results using real-time functional MRI neurofeedback (rtfMRI-NF) when it comes to the treatment of a variety of mental illnesses.
  2. The reviewed studies demonstrated how participants could use a neurofeedback signal and self-regulate brain activity in specified areas of the brain.
  3. While data collected showed that rtfMRI-NF had a moderate effect on neural activity in targeted brain regions during training, the researchers discovered significant effects at a later stage, even without the neurofeedback signal.
  4. Findings show that rtfMRI-NF only has a small effect on behavior. More research is still needed when it comes to how rtfMRI-NF works and who can benefit from it the most. It is, however, still crucial to find the roots of how useful it truly will be outside research.


About Mental Health

Mental health affects a variety of aspects, be it in thinking, feeling, behaving, or a combination of any of the three. If one suffers from degrading mental health, it impairs relationships and daily functioning. Sometimes, the condition may even be temporary or chronic.

Facts you need to know:

  1. Approximately 26 percent of adults in the United States experiences a mental health condition within a year.
  2. Out of the 26 percent, 9.5 percent of them will suffer from a serious condition, including extreme depression or bipolar disorder.

Treatments have been made available, through meds and through psychosocial interventions. These are deemed to be safe and effective. Sadly, however, there are a few cases in which the treatments can create unfavorable effects, which means that treatment has to ultimately stop. Additionally, some illnesses are resistant to treatment of any form.

Current standard-care treatments have differing effects and efficacy. One reason may be that these do not target the disruption to neural circuits, a portion of the brain most associated with mental illness. Hence, researchers are forced to look elsewhere for help.

To aid these experts in their study, researchers have made use of functional MRI (fMRI), a noninvasive neuroimaging tool that has the ability to measure brain activity through the changes that take place in the cerebral blood flow. They do this to further understand and explain the neurobiological changes associated with psychiatric illness.

In the latest study on metal health, researchers used rtfMRI-NF. They incorporate biofeedback in order to teach the sufferers control of their own brain’s neural activity. They observed all these in a scanner. As for those unfamiliar with the processes, biofeedback is a treatment that healthcare professionals use from time to time in order to gain control involuntary bodily processes.


Novel Treatment

Some studies using rtfMRI-NF in an experiment as a treatment for a wide range of mental illnesses have shown to be beneficial. Unfortunately, this comes at a very high price. Not too many folks have access to the amount of money involved as it needs an extensive setup in order to get real-time analysis.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York had set up a meta-analysis of 17 relevant studies. Their goal was to determine just how effective rtfMRI-NF was in regulating brain activity and behavioral outcomes. They have since published the findings of the study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Co-author of the stiudy is Dr. David Dodell-Feder. He is an assistant professor at both the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rochester and the Department of Neuroscience at the University’s Medical Center. He has found objective pieces of evidence and says, “Ultimately, we want people to be able to take what they learn in the scanner during the training sessions to use in their day-to-day life. If they can do that, it shows that the neurofeedback is meaningful, that they are taking something away from it, and that they can now apply that experience – even without neurofeedback.”

The meta-analysis the researchers evaluated looked at whether or not the rtfMRI-NF led to voluntary control of brain activity during training,  whether the effects lasted even after and without the presence of a neurofeedback, and if the patient’s outcome has improved.

The team analyzed a total of 410 participants, 234 of whom received rtfMRI-NF. The participants were an average of 34 years old. They also made sure that they had an equal number of males and females.

About 53 percent of those who participated took psychotropic medications. Many of them were diagnosed with any of the following:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Substance-related and addictive disorders
  • Trauma and stressor-related disorders
  • Anxiety disorders

These participants completed an average of two sessions. Their total regulation time was about 24 minutes spread across. Most of the studies compared active neurofeedback with a stimulated one of the control group. The researchers also targeted the amygdala, which was the known source of feedback.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It is the one in charge of emotion processing. Fear and pleasure, are in fact, the strongest emotions known. Moreover, most studies provided clear and concise instructions for regulating the neural signal. As the output shows itself, researchers then measured the percent signal-change that a task triggered. They provided continuous neurofeedback and incorporated a transfer task to see if the participant could perform the previously learned regulation during the period after that doesn’t include the neurofeedback.


Positive Results Perceived

The meta-analysis the researchers conducted made a few pleasantly startling discoveries: rtfMRI-NF produced a moderate effect on brain activity in the targeted regions. Many of these effects took place during training, but a large portion took place after even in the absence of neurofeedback.

On the flip side, rtfMRI-NF demonstrated only minute effects on symptoms and cognitive impairment.

Emily Dudek, lead author and a clinical research coordinator at the Brain Injury Research Center of Mount Sinai in New York City, says, “We believe this provides relatively strong evidence that volitional control over neural processes that are specifically targeted during training is possible. This volitional control was also present in contexts in which no feedback was provided.”

There is the possibility of publication bias. That’s because there may somewhat be a sort of sway from previous nonpublished studies that didn’t show effects. The team behind the study actually detected that during analyses, there may further be a decrease in the measured effect of rtfMRI-NF on symptoms.

The study may have limitations on the meta-analysis. These are the small study sample sizes. The low number could potentially lead to underpowering and declined validity of results.

Hence, further research is needed. These studies should also include adequately powered, high quality studies in order for them to properly elucidate how and for whom rtfMRI-NF could be most effective. These studies could eventually show how rtfMRI-NF works outside a research setting.

Prof. Dodell-Feder, Dr. J. Steven Lamberti, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and a graduate student team have set out to conduct a rtfMRI-NF research on their own. Their goal is to teach people who suffer from schizophrenia to self-regulate the social information processing area of the brain. This study is still underway, and it is with hope that the results they come up with have the crucial answers they’ve all been searching for.