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Illumination magazine.
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Alex Harvey, 7, focuses intently during a neurofeedback gaming session.

Seven-year-old Alex Harvey can’t wait for the game to start. Sitting on his mother’s lap, with two electrode sensors on his head and a sensor clip on each ear, he fidgets and fusses. “Mom, I want to say, ‘Go!’” he says. Finally, Guy McCormack, chair of MU’s Department of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science, finishes with setup. Alex has requested Chomper, a game similar to Pac-Man.

“Are you ready?” McCormack asks.

“Yeah,” Alex says. “Go.”

The game begins and Alex’s fidgets stop. Relaxed against his mother, he moves Chomper through a simple maze. The on-screen graphics may be a flashback to the 80s, but the game is still incredible to watch. There’s no handheld controller, no joystick, no mouse. Alex makes Chomper move with his brainpower alone.

“It really runs on players’ attention,” McCormack says. “The better they pay attention, the faster it goes.”

McCormack is using the game to provide Alex with neurofeedback training as a therapy for autism, a condition Alex was diagnosed with when he was 3. Neurofeedback training is also called EEG biofeedback because it is based on the electroencephalogram. McCormack describes it as something like “a workout for the brain,” a mental exercise regimen that offers hope of significant improvements in the lives of thousands of autistic kids.

“The therapist acts as a personal trainer,” he says. “The neurofeedback equipment works like a ‘mind mirror’ that shows the child instantly how his or her brain is functioning.”

The electrode sensors on Alex’s head measure and amplify electrical impulses emitted from his brain’s neurons and send those signals to the computer. If Alex is paying attention, his brainwaves register in the targeted “alpha” range, and Chomper gobbles up the dots. If Alex is not well-focused, the sensors direct Chomper to become less voracious. 

If Alex is, for example, experiencing anxiety during the game, the sensors read spikes in fast “beta” waves. If he is bored, they show slow “theta” waves. In both instances Chomper becomes sluggish or even stops. “The basic principle behind neurofeedback is operant conditioning,” McCormack says. “The aim of neurofeedback is to enable the child to consciously control his or her brainwave activity by being rewarded for his ability to attend.”

Neurofeedback was developed by NASA to monitor and train pilots in flight simulations; in the last 30 years it has been explored as a therapy for numerous disorders, ranging from PMS to epilepsy, and even as a way to train athletes to “get in the zone.”

Remaining focused is particularly difficult for Alex and others with autism because of how their brains are “wired.” Although the causes of autism remain unknown, imaging studies have shown that children with autism often have what scientists call an over-proliferation of white matter in some areas of their brains and an under-proliferation in other areas. White matter carries messages between different parts of the brain. Too much results in extra connections; too little produces too few.

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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.