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Neurofeedback and Neurotherapy as Treatments for Addiction

Changing Brainwaves May Help Overcome Addictive Tendencies

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Updated October 15, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Neurotherapy is an approach to treating psychological problems by working directly with brainwaves. Addiction is one of several problems that may be treated by neurotherapy, as are anxiety, depression, and attention and learning problems. For this reason, neurotherapy can be very effective when there is another related condition that requires treatment in addition to the addiction. While there is data to support some benefit for neurotherapy in certain conditions, it is still considered an alternative treatment.

How Does Neurotherapy Work?

Neurotherapy uses computer technology to measure brainwaves. This is known as an electroencephalograph, or EEG. Although this process involves applying wires to the scalp, it is important to realize that the wires are simply measuring the electrical charge produced by the brain – they are not putting any electricity into the brain (as in electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT, which is commonly used as a treatment for refractory depression). The process is painless.

The brainwave signals are filtered through a computer program, so that the therapist and the patient can work together on changing specific brainwaves in areas of the brain that are affected. The filtering process allows the slow brainwaves to be separated out from the fast brainwaves. Everyone needs a good balance of slow and fast brainwaves.

When the neurotherapist has assessed the individual’s brainwave patterns and determined the deficiencies or excesses of specific types of brainwaves, the individual learns to reduce or increase the targeted brainwaves using feedback through a computer game. Instead of playing the games using their hands, the person plays the game using their brainwaves. When their brainwaves are moving in the right direction, an animation will move on the computer screen, just like a regular computer game.

Why Might Neurotherapy Help Treat Addiction?

One brainwave pattern typically seen in people with addictions, as well as the children of alcoholics (even those who do not drink), is too many fast brainwaves and too few slow brainwaves. This creates a lot of “mental chatter” for the person and can cause them to have a hard time quieting their mind. Drinking or drug use can be a way of slowing down the brainwaves and self-calming, which is why so many people with addictions also have problems with anxiety.

Another pattern often seen in people with addictions is the opposite – too many slow brainwaves, which makes it difficult for the individual to focus and hold their attention. People with attentional problems such as ADHD have this pattern, and they may cope by using stimulant drugs –- prescribed, over-the counter (including coffee), or illicit -- to speed up their brainwaves and help them focus. With the help of neurotherapy, they may be able to bring their brainwaves into a more functional range and no longer need drugs to feel calm and focused.

Neurotherapy can be a good choice for people with addictions because it is a drug-free approach. Once the brainwaves have been adjusted to function more effectively, the effects are permanent. People who have been dependent on drugs for years can become drug-free.

It Can’t Be As Simple As Just Fixing My Brainwaves…

Neurotherapy can be used in conjunction with other therapies such as counseling, motivational interviewing, EMDR, art therapy and lifestyle changes. This is important for overcoming addiction, because there are many factors -- genetics, brainwave imbalances, stress, social influences, and so on -– that both cause the addiction and keep it going. Each factor needs to be addressed to enable the individual to find new ways of coping that do not involve the addictive behavior or lifestyle.

Neurotherapy may help your inner world function better without the need for alcohol or other drugs to feel “normal.” However, you will have to work on making your outer world supportive of a life free of addiction. Counseling may help, and neurotherapy may also help to give you the focus, motivation and determination to succeed.

How Do I Find a Neurotherapist?

Neurotherapy is highly specialized, and is not offered widely. Because of the nature of the therapy, it is important to work only with a practitioner who is properly trained in the technique. Even many medical doctors, neurologists, and psychologists are often unaware of this technique.

The training of neurotherapists is overseen by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA), who are approved by the American Psychological Association as the accrediting body for neurotherapists and biofeedback therapists. Contact the BCIA to find your nearest qualified neurotherapist.

Sources:

Peniston, E. and Kulkosky, P. Alpha-theta brainwave training and beta-endorphin levels in alcoholics. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 1989; 13:271-279.

Peniston, E. and Kulkosky, P. Alcoholic personality and alpha-theta brainwave training. Medical Psychotherapy 1990; 3:37-55.

Saxby, E. and Peniston, E. Alpha-theta brainwave neurofeedback training: An effective treatment for male and female alcoholics with depressive symptoms. Journal of Clinical Psychology 1995; 51:685-693.

Swingle, P. Biofeedback for the Brain. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 2008.

Taub, D., Steiner, S., Weingarten, E. and Walton, K. Effectiveness of broad spectrum approaches to relapse prevention in severe alcoholism: A long term, randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation, EMG biofeedback, and electronic neurotherapy. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 1994; 11:187-220.

Waldkoetter, R. and Sanders, G. (1997). Auditory brainwave stimulation in treating alcoholic depression. Perception and Motor Skills 1997; 84:226.

Yucha, C. and Gilbert, C. Evidence-Based Practice in Biofeedback and Neurofeedback. Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 2004.

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