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New approach: neurofeedback; School tries computer program to help students with disorders

Posted: Monday, February 21, 2011

JUNEAU (AP) -- If you look at many common issues people can have -- such as anxiety, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and substance abuse -- they all lead back to one place: the brain.

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Ap Photos/Juneau Empire, Michael Penn
Ap Photos/Juneau Empire, Michael Penn
Clifford White, 18, a student at the Yaakoosge Daakahiki Alternative High School uses a computer program called Brain Paint in Juneau on Jan. 27. Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School received a $10,000 two-year state grant with the goal of finding an innovative solution to the challenges Alaska school districts face: high suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy.

Healing the brain is often done through counseling, medications or both, however another method also exists -- neurofeedback.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School received a $10,000 two-year state grant with the goal of finding an innovative solution to the challenges Alaskan school districts face: high suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy. Districts have spent thousands on traditional therapy, treatment centers and prevention programs, yet those alone have not alleviated the issues.

Local physician Patrick Neary, who uses neurofeedback in treatments, recommended the school try out Brain Paint, a neurofeedback program.

Bill Scott, CEO of Brain Paint, created the computer program for the company, while his wife Cora took on the business. His formal training is in social work and continued with neurofeedback. He also took on computer programming as a hobby.

He's been involved in neurofeedback since 1993 and has trained 3,000 clinicians in it. However, it was found only about 40 percent stuck with the treatment method because it was difficult for physicians to use.

What Scott designed Brain Paint to do is make the equipment easy to use, and expand upon the foundations.

Essentially, participants have three sensors hooked onto their heads in specific locations depending upon their needs. Then they watch pictures of their brain activity while listening to music generated from the same brain waves. There are several elements to what a person is watching and what the neurofeedback is doing.

Scott's program also adds to the initial neurofeedback program of sending only linear pulses to the brain to improve functionality. His theory is since brain waves aren't linear, the treatment shouldn't be either. But, he didn't want to "throw the baby out with the bath water" so the program uses both. The linear portion of the program shows the participant how actively they are paying attention to the process.

The process is designed to teach the brain how to manage itself normally. Scott said medications can help get the brain to a certain state, but the brain never learns how to get there.

"There are three primary causes of why people have problems," he said. "Independent of one's will, there is underarousal -- some peoples brains are just too underactivated. It takes too much sensory output from the world to engage them."

Another category is people whose brains are over-activated. They tend to be too impulsive and may have problems with intense anger or falling asleep.

The third category is those dealing with traumas, fear conditioning or insecurities. Their brains don't know how to stop.

Scott said the brain is the biggest hurdle in overcoming issues, because it gets into a state of survival mode.

"Their brain recognizes a threat of discontinuing on a path," he said. "An automatic survival reaction will trigger in us."

Scott said Brain Paint works as specific form of meditation, so the brain's cortex receives real-time feedback about developing control over a certain state -- like anxiety.

"If we're in zero gravity as a baby, there is no way to know how to walk," he said. "With gravity, after a while, the cortex is getting real time feedback to develop cortical control over that. Whatever the cortex develops is permanent."

So, the balance of the types of pulses being sent to the brain works on teaching the cortex to learn control over an area it is lacking.

Scott said the program is very successful on ADD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD, sleep issues, nightmares, depression, anxiety, memory, migraines, some issues with menopause, addiction, behavioral problems, Asperger's syndrome, autism and other areas.

One thing it doesn't seem to have an effect on is dyslexia.

Scott said the program also won't work on something like Alzheimer's disease. He said most memory issues come from poor attention, which is something neurofeedback can be effective in fixing.

He also said some issues get worse as time goes on. Moderate cases of ADD or behavioral problems in children can increase at puberty.

"Kids who have a lot of tantrums, where they're raging for a half-hour a day, when those kids get into puberty it will get a lot worse," he said.

Scott said research has shown those are also the people who have more violent and angry futures. He said one study conducted in Canada in a prison with violent inmates found that by using neurofeedback on them, only 20 percent had been rearrested after release. Those who hadn't been treated suffered an 80 percent recidivism rate.

Scott is also excited about the results for autism and Asperger's.

"It has a profound impact on that usually," he said. "Not always of course. Usually within 8-10 sessions, people are often in tears over the transformation. It improves the ability to socialize and participate in activities, engage in relationships with people."

Scott said he has only had five people not make progress with the program, and that's because they were using medications with benzodiazepene.

One of the first studies Scott participated in was with a Native American community in Minnesota. Those participants were struggling with alcohol abuse and had PTSD.

"We ended up with a 79 percent success rate, 100 percent of them had PTSD from the Vietnam War," he said. "None of them met the diagnostic criteria for that after 20 sessions. Every single one of them completed treatment, which is unheard of in that population."

Scott said there are no permanent negative side affects, although sometimes people will feel more irritable for a couple days.

"Sometimes medical professionals are told there is no research on this (neurofeedback)," he said. "They just don't read the research. There have been hundreds of studies in the last 40 years. The main reason its not everywhere is because it was way too difficult to use. Engineers designed the equipment for engineers as opposed to designing it for therapists."

Yaakoosge has 16 students currently involved in the program, who will complete 20-40 sessions based upon their needs. Students go through the protocols with staff daily during a class period. Students answer a 90-question survey and complete a pre- and post-test. They are also required to have parental consent if under 18.

"Students are proactive, they're signing up for it," Counselor Kristi Buerger said. "We've been showing a DVD that has come from Brain Paint that gives the ins and outs and what can be gained from that. It is not anything we are requiring students to do. They can be involved. We have come up with a list of students that we feel would benefit from it more than others. But any teacher in this school, any person in this town could benefit from this."

At least two physicians in town are using, or will be using the program.

Special education teacher Britta Steinberger said Brain Paint is used in conjunction with counseling and students are taught how to do self-assessments and become self-aware.

Principal Sarah Marino said students have been interested in it for a variety of reasons, including attention deficit, depression, anxiety and similar issues.

Buerger said they wanted to try something with a good success rate, and the data for Brain Paint is promising.

"We have a lot of students who have a need for something beyond counseling to work through either trauma in their life or depression or some of the other areas biofeedback can work with," Marino said.

The school is trying the program out through a two-year grant.

"We'll assess it," Buerger said. "We're going to put our all into it. We'll see if its working, and if its not, we'll table it."

Steinberger said while it is still in the evaluative process, it is already showing promising results. After evaluating data at the end of the grant, they hope it's something other schools in the district will be interested in trying.

Buerger recommends two books for those interested in learning more about neurofeedback: "20 Hour Solution" by Mark Steinberg and "A Symphony in the Brain" by Jim Robbins.



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