What Is Neurotherapy?

Device-based neurotherapies improve brain function with technology

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Neurotherapy helps people improve brain functions using technological devices. Drug-free neurotechnologies modify brain activity without medication. Most neurotherapy techniques are non-invasive, painless, and safe when administered by a trained professional in a clinical setting.

Neurotherapy technology and methods aren't set in stone. Because neurotechnology is constantly evolving and still in the experimental stage, treatments and procedures are also ever-changing. Read on to learn more about this therapeutic technique.

Neurotherapy

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Conditions Treated

Neurotherapy is used to treat a wide range of conditions, such as:

Neurotherapy can be used for people who don't respond to pharmaceutical treatment as a supplemental or alternative way to treat a condition.

History of Neurotherapy

In 1962, Dr. Joe Kamiya identified that people could self-regulate their alpha brainwave rhythms in the presence of neurofeedback. The earliest form of neurotherapy was electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback. EEG neurofeedback was first used in the 1970s. Since 2009, different forms of neurofeedback and various neurostimulation devices are also used for neurotherapy treatments.

Process: How It Works

During neurofeedback training, real-time brain activity is monitored using technological tools such as electroencephalography (EEG-NF) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI-NF). With practice, neurofeedback teaches people how to self-regulate their brainwave activity. Over time, neurofeedback may also "rewire" the brain.

Neurofeedback may use reward-based operant conditioning to teach people how to control brainwave patterns by rewarding them for creating certain brainwave states on demand.

For example, alpha brainwaves are associated with a calm and relaxed state of mind, whereas beta brainwaves are associated with attention and focus. So, if lowering anxiety is the goal, neurotherapy teaches someone how to create alpha brainwaves on demand. Conversely, to address ADHD symptoms, someone would practice creating beta brainwaves.

Neurostimulation therapies use low-voltage electromagnetic or direct electric currents to modify brain activity and stimulate specific brain regions. Non-invasive neurostimulation devices such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are placed above the head and do not penetrate the skin.

Although some neurotherapeutic stimulation devices are implanted during surgery, most are non-invasive and portable.

Who Does It?

Generally speaking, neurotherapy is performed by a neurotherapist. However, most healthcare providers trained to perform neurofeedback or neurostimulation also have other qualifications and certifications related to their specialty.

Locating a Provider

The International Society for Neurofeedback & Research (ISNR) is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the use of neurotherapy to help people optimize brain function and improve symptoms of neurological or mental health disorders. ISNR has a searchable "Find a Provider" directory on its website.

Types

Some types of neurotherapy include:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) neurofeedback
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback
  • Slow cortical potentials (SCPs) neurofeedback
  • Low-energy neurofeedback system (LENS)
  • Live Z-score training (LZT)
  • Hemoencephalographic (HEG) neurofeedback

In addition to neurofeedback and neurostimulation devices, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have developed a first-of-its-kind video game called NeuroRacer that is FDA-approved to treat ADHD in children ages 8 to 12.

Other new technologies on the horizon include non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) devices for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two neurotherapy devices that stimulate the vagus nerve via an earbud or handheld device were recently given "breakthrough device designation" by the FDA for treating PTSD.

What Is the FDA's Breakthrough Devices Program?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Breakthrough Devices Program fast-tracks the development of specific medical devices and neurotechnologies without compromising the agency's commitment to promote and protect public health.

Eligibility: Who Uses It?

People of all ages and walks of life can benefit from neurotherapy.

For example, UCSF's NeuroRacer video game that is being used to treat ADHD is children was initially designed to enhance cognitive control in older adults ages 60 to 85.

Outcomes

Most non-invasive neurotherapy treatments have very few side effects and are generally considered safe when performed by a trained professional.

Although outcomes may vary, recovery is typically very fast.

Warnings

Although the earliest neurofeedback studies were conducted over a half century ago, there's still much debate about the legitimacy of many types of neurotherapy. Currently, there aren't enough studies to be confident that every type of neurotherapy will have reliably positive outcomes.

Most neurofeedback treatments are well-tolerated and low-risk. Neurostimulation, on the other hand, is riskier because it uses electricity to modifying brain activity. Always make sure that any neurostimulation device you’re using is FDA-approved and speak with a healthcare provider about potential risks.

The most common side effect for many neurotherapies is a tingling scalp, which subsides soon after treatment.

Be wary of products making lofty promises or overhyping the effectiveness of any direct-to-consumer neurotechnology sold for in-home use. Many of these products may be potentially dangerous.

Summary

Device-based neurotherapy is a growing field of drug-free therapeutics that can help people improve brain function without taking medications.

Neurofeedback is based on the principle that you can consciously alter the electrical activity in your brain. Neurostimulation uses neurotechnology to stimulate targeted brain areas with electricity.

The FDA's breakthrough device program fast-tracks the development of pioneering technologies that have the potential to improve how our minds and brains work.

A Word From Verywell

Because state-of-the-art neurotechnologies are continually being developed, the field of neurotherapy is continuously evolving. Unfortunately, many of these new devices aren't thoroughly tested or closely-regulated. Neurotherapy sessions should be performed under the guidance of a trained professional. Consult with a healthcare provider if you would like to consider neurostimulation.

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