How we control the brain with our thoughts

With so-called neurofeedback, patients with depression or ADHD see on a screen what their thoughts are causing. This can change your life and the image we have of ourselves.

A look at the brain

Brain research findings are changing people’s self-image. The series of articles describes the connections between the brain and experience that explain our daily lives. This is the first post.

Automatic ways of thinking have developed in our brains over years and decades and influence what we experience and feel. It is not in vain that we talk about the brain as a control center. But it also works the other way around. Experiencing the power of your own thoughts in real time is life-changing for some patients suffering from depression.

That’s why some therapists also offer their patients neurofeedback in addition to conventional therapy. The patient practices by directly influencing the electrical activity of brain cells. It has not yet been scientifically proven that this can relieve the symptoms of depression. However, the experience can be healing.

Neural activity is read directly from the brain.

With neurofeedback, brain cell activity is measured through a brain-computer interface and transmitted to the patient in real time. For example, observe a sinusoid on a screen that moves at different intensities. You then learn to control this curve and thus influence your brain activity. Eight out of ten patients can do it well.

How this works varies from patient to patient. Many imagine everyday life experiences in which they indirectly control their brain activity. If while reading on the train we concentrate on a newspaper article, the sensitivity of the auditory centers of the brain decreases. Only then can we ignore the conversation in the seats next to us. If we close our eyes and listen to calm music for a few minutes, our brain activity also changes. We only feel the consequences: our heartbeat slows down, we relax.

If measuring electrodes were placed on the surface of our head while we listen to music, they would measure the so-called alpha waves. The electrical activity of the brain, which oscillates at a frequency of 8 to 12 heartbeats, shows that the brain is relaxed but awake and alert.

The alpha waves show that inside the brain, the cells just behind the forehead become quieter. At the same time, cells in the so-called “default mode network” exchange more electrical signals. The group of brain regions beneath the surface of the cerebral cortex is also activated when subjects perform mindfulness meditation during the brain measurement.

Neural activity in the brain can be voluntarily controlled

Neurofeedback often begins with these alpha waves and reflects them back to the patient as sounds, images, or waves. First, alpha waves can be reliably measured using a simple device, the electroencephalogram. And second, therapy usually involves patients learning to relax again.

Three or four hours of practice are usually sufficient and the patient can produce alpha waves on the screen almost with the push of a button. In theory, neurofeedback could be an effective alternative to weeks of meditation exercises in a monastery or other relaxation exercises.

Cats can also control their brain activity

The ability to control brain activity is not exclusive to humans. Monkeys, cats and even rats can do the same: in the laboratory, the animals listen to a sound that shows them the level of brain activity. If the animal manages to increase brain activity, it will be rewarded.

Once animals have learned the procedure, they can even control their brains better than many people. However, this is mainly because the measuring electrodes are implanted directly into the animals’ brains. Therefore, the electrical activity of the brain can be measured much more directly.

Researchers develop an application for patients

What rodents apparently manage to do surprises many people. For patients, the neurofeedback experience can even be therapeutic. In a review article on the effectiveness of neurofeedback in depression, German researchers write that the neurofeedback experience can strengthen self-efficacy, as psychologists call confidence in one’s abilities.

In the lab, scientists are trying to use neurofeedback to specifically change the activity of specific regions of the brain in order to alleviate depressive symptoms.

To do this, patients must lie in an MRI scanner. During training they see the activity of the so-called amygdala. The brain region is active when experiences are evaluated in an emotionally positive way. Those who managed to increase activity in the amygdala felt less desolate and depressed in everyday life.

The research results of American scientists are so convincing that for the first time they have been able to raise funds for a large-scale clinical study with a few hundred patients.

However, the procedure using MRI is unlikely to become established in treatment because it is complex and expensive. Therefore, Israeli scientists are already working on using artificial intelligence to detect a signal from the amygdala on the surface of the head. Lead scientist Talma Hendler is convinced that neurofeedback can help many patients in the future. She also works with people who have suffered a traumatic experience and with children who suffer from attention deficit disorder.

Other neuroscientists are more cautious about using neurofeedback. Frank Scharnowski, who studies neurofeedback at the University of Vienna, has a clearly different opinion: “It is still too early to establish neurofeedback as an evidence-based therapy.”

This evidence-based therapy would have to meet the highest scientific standards. For example, it would have to be clearly demonstrated that training affects the brain region responsible for the symptoms of depression.

Researchers agree that this form of evidence will not be successful in the near future. To date, it is still unclear which neural mechanisms actually cause depression.

40 percent of patients feel less depressed after

Individual studies have already shown that the mechanism of action of neurofeedback in depression is not necessarily based on the control of the emotional region of the brain: researchers in England had patients control the amygdala or another randomly selected region of the cerebral cortex. In both cases, 40 percent of patients felt better and less depressed after neurofeedback. Both groups seem to benefit equally from the self-efficacy experience mentioned at the beginning.

The medical mechanism of action of neurofeedback in depression is still unclear and the therapy cannot be considered scientifically validated. But the research results on neurofeedback training clearly show that we can control our brain activity at will.

It remains to be seen whether in the future we will all sit in front of the computer with electrodes on our heads to relax. We can also simply listen to music at night and thus relax the brain.

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