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Finally, McCormack had parents fill out questionnaires that measured the children’s overall behavior and sleep patterns, along with the frequency of their autistic behaviors at home.

McCormack received neurofeedback software training through EEG Spectrum, a company that sells its own neurofeedback system. He also studied the literature on neurofeedback and autism to determine the best protocol, such as where on the children’s heads to place the electrode sensors. He found the experts were not in agreement. In fact, they weren’t even close.

“It was a little frustrating to me because I got on a conference call with people who were identified as the gurus in neurofeedback, and they couldn’t agree with each other,” he says. “They were all getting some results, but they didn’t agree with each other.”

After experimenting with different placements, McCormack settled on locating the sensors over the frontal lobe, a part of the brain involved with reasoning, emotions and judgment. Placement of the sensors matters, McCormack says, because one of the goals is to get neurons in specific areas of the children’s brains to fire in synchrony with each other. Placement is also important, he adds, because it is possible to be training one area of the brain to attend to various stimuli while other areas continue to function at lower and higher frequencies.

Upon arrival at the lab, a nondescript room in the basement of MU’s Clark Hall, the children are wired up to receive a 15-minute training session. There are two computers: One displays the game, and one displays the children’s electroencephalograms. McCormack uses the electroencephalograms to monitor the children’s theta, alpha and beta wave levels; if the game slows, he can see whether the problem is anxiety or boredom. He can also use the EEG computer to change the game parameters, allowing the children to succeed with less focus if the game is too hard or requiring them to focus more if the game is too easy. 

The children can choose from several games, including the aforementioned Chomper and a space race that challenges them to keep a middle rocket (representing their alpha brainwaves) ahead of two competing rockets (one representing theta waves, the other beta waves). As the games progress, sensors provide a continuous flow of information to the computer, with updates occurring multiple times a second and the results showing up in the game’s performance. That flow of feedback is what makes neurofeedback unique, McCormack says.

“It’s kind of like having someone say, ‘Nice job, Johnny,’ thousands of times in a second,” McCormack says. “A teacher or therapist could not offer feedback that continuous.”

Though the game “tells” children how their brains are performing, neither it nor McCormack ever offers instructions on how to get their brains into the targeted alpha zone. Why this happens is something of a mystery to the nation’s autism researchers.

“Somehow the brain is able to figure out what it needs to do and can make it happen,” says neuropsychologist Robert Coben, a licensed psychologist in New York and one of the most well-known practitioners of neurofeedback for people with autism. “How the brain is doing it is a mystery, but almost anyone can do it. It is rather amazing that a person can learn to control a specific part of their brain in one or two minutes, but it happens.”

McCormack goes back to operant conditioning: the training changes behaviors through a system of rewards and penalties.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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