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Eight-year-old Benjamin Mobley plays “Chomper” in Guy McCormack’s MU lab.

“The children feel differently when their brains are operating in different ways,” he says. “If they see it on the screen and they link that up with how they feel, they can almost consciously bring that back at another time.

“Ultimately, the control falls back on them, and that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “They gain ways to recognize when their brain is working well, and otherwise, they wouldn’t know that.”

However, operant conditioning is not all that McCormack thinks is going on during neurofeedback training. He, along with Coben and others, also theorize that neurofeedback creates physical changes in the brain.

“It’s based on neuroplasticity,” McCormack says. “Where you put the sensors, it increases the metabolism of the brain — it increases the blood supply and oxygen — so you get more sprouting of ‘dendrites,’ or neuron branches, in those areas.

“It gets pretty dense in the neuroscience at the molecular level,” McCormack says, but the basic idea is that neurofeedback not only retrains but also rewires the brain, laying down new neural pathways that result in improved focus, attention, social interactions, sleep and appetite.

Whether neurofeedback can truly deliver those results for any neurological disorder is still up for debate in the scientific community. The effects of neurofeedback on Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been studied far more than those on autism, and though practitioners swear by the treatment, some scientists still question its value. Dr. Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, is one of the most prominent skeptics of using neurofeedback for ADHD. He says he remains unconvinced because there have been no rigorous studies showing the treatment is effective.

 “We have a lot of papers claiming an effect,” he said, “but they didn’t include either random assignment or placebo. Without those controls, we don’t know what the results are due to.” He adds that there have been a couple of “scientifically rigorous” studies, and they “haven’t shown much.”

“I would describe biofeedback as experimental at best and disproven at worst,” he says. “It should not be offered to the public as though it worked.”

McCormack does not claim his study will end debate about biofeedback’s effectiveness. But as a pilot study, he says, it is “rather promising.” After 20 sessions, five of the eight children showed measurable improvements and two showed no change (one, who got worse early on, did not complete the 20 sessions). On the “test for variables of attention,” the children averaged a 21 percent improvement on reaction time, an 18 percent improvement in response sensitivity, an 11 percent decrease in hitting the button too soon and a 28 percent decrease in omission errors.

“That test has really been remarkable because it’s very objective,” McCormack says. “It’s not like the self-reporting tests that are filled out by the parents, and what we saw were some great gains.”

On the standardized social responsiveness scale, five of the eight children improved by 20 percent; the others showed no significant change. Meanwhile, qualitative data pulled from the parent questionnaires were highly positive; parents reported their children were less anxious, more flexible and better able to control their emotions and behaviors.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.


Illumination home. Spring 2009 Table of Contents.