In the fall of 2013, when Natalie was having so much trouble sleeping, I confided in a few friends about the problem, and fortunately one of them had a wonderful suggestion. A local therapist had spoken at her moms’ group about brain development in childhood. One of the topics she touched on was neurofeedback as a therapy for ADHD and sleep issues, among other conditions. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, so I was familiar with biofeedback, but not EEG biofeedback (aka neurofeedback), and I wasn’t aware that the technology had advanced enough to be used the way this therapist described.
I was more than intrigued. I had already suggested to Natalie’s doctor and Craig that maybe we should have a sleep study done on Natalie, so neurofeedback sounded very interesting. I did some research, and I took Natalie in the next month for an initial consultation. We started her appointments in January of 2014.
Of course I’m going to update you on Natalie, but first, some science!
In order for the brain to function properly, the different areas of the brain must be in constant communication. This happens when the brain sends electrical signals along neurons that connect the different areas of the brain. This electrical activity is depicted visually as brain waves. Right now, as you read this, your brain is constantly sending out electrical impulses through your neurons and synapses. This activity can be measured by a device called an electroencephalograph (EEG) and seen on a monitor as brain wave activity. The frequency of your brain waves is measured in hertz.
There are four main brain wave frequencies:
Beta Waves —Produced when you are awake and engaged in active thought
Alpha Waves—Produced mostly when you close your eyes and relax
Theta Waves—Produced when you start to fall asleep
Delta Waves—-Produced when you are sleeping
Decades of research has shown that in any given circumstance, there are normal brain wave patterns that are expected. A healthy brain and nervous system will produce the appropriate brain wave pattern given whatever situation a person is in. For example, as you can see in the chart above, when a person is sleeping, Delta waves would be expected and while someone is reading, Beta waves should be present.
When a person’s brain wave patterns are all out of whack, this is called brain wave dysregulation, and it can produce a variety of symptoms. Poor sleep, poor attention, too much emotion, not enough emotion, headaches and pain are all possible symptoms when brain patterns are not normal. Brain dysregulation can be caused by several things. Unresolved physical or emotional stress, poor nutrition, drug or chemical stress to the body, physical injury, abuse, and trauma could all possibly cause brain dysregulation.
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a completely drugless, noninvasive therapy with minimal side effects, that over time, teaches the brain to regulate itself. How cool is that? Electrodes are placed on the patient’s scalp in various locations, depending on which area of the brain the therapist wants to observe, and clips are attached to the ears. This is completely painless. The electrodes collect information about the electrical activity in the brain and send the EEG results to the therapist’s computer screen. Absolutely nothing is done TO the brain. The electrodes are only collecting information. In real-time, while the patient watches a video game or movie, the therapist views the EEG activity of the patient and sets the parameters of the desired brain wave activity. This video game/movie is a graphic representation of the patient’s brainwaves, and it will only play when the brain is producing the desired pattern of brain waves. If the patient’s brain stops producing the desired brain wave, the game/movie stops playing. The patient’s nervous system receives this instantaneous visual information, often accompanied by auditory reinforcement such as a pinging sound and accumulating points given just like in a video game. As this instantaneous feedback is given, the brain reorganizes itself, and the patterns begin to normalize. Over the course of many sessions, the brain changes itself to begin producing the appropriate brain waves at the appropriate times, resulting in an alleviation of symptoms. Basically, through a learning process, the brain retrains itself. Amazing.
Neurofeedback is used to treat a variety of conditions. In fact, in October of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that neurofeedback is a “Level 1 Best Support” intervention for attention and hyperactivity disorders. That means that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers neurofeedback just as effective at treating ADHD and ADD as medication and behavior therapy. JUST AS EFFECTIVE….and no drugs. There have also been studies done, and more are underway, to determine if neurofeedback is an effective treatment for PTSD. The results seem promising. Neurofeedback has also been used to treat anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, migraines, brain injury, and autism. Athletes are even turning to neurofeedback to have an edge in competition and perform at the highest level.
Here is a video of a neurofeedback session done to help a child with ADHD:
After my friend told me about the therapist that had spoken at her moms’ group, I took Natalie in for an initial consultation. The therapist that spoke was booked several months ahead, but I needed help NOW, so we agreed to see her colleague who also performs neurofeedback. She agreed that Natalie was a good candidate, and in the winter/spring of 2014 I took Natalie for a total of 12 sessions. Just as it is with any doctor or therapist, though, you need to find a good fit, and unfortunately this wasn’t it. She was wonderful with Natalie, but she was pretty inexperienced, didn’t provide me with very much information, and had medical issues of her own. These medical issues caused her to cancel many appointments that we had to reschedule, and Natalie’s treatment was very inconsistent. That is not ideal for neurofeedback. However, two wonderful things happened. During the 12 sessions Natalie attended, she stopped having night terrors and her sleepwalking was greatly reduced. Also, her improved sleep got rid of the “spiders” she was seeing. Hallelujah! However, I felt like the neurofeedback at this point had only taken the edge off of some of Natalie’s other behaviors. The therapist thought it was time to dismiss Natalie, though, and I didn’t argue, because scheduling and rescheduling were getting very difficult. I hoped that with the improved sleep, over time she would continue to feel better.
I was wrong, though, and we still needed help.
Neurofeedback had helped Natalie. Her night terrors and sleepwalking had all but disappeared. I felt that if we found a more experienced therapist and stuck with a consistent schedule, she could be helped even more. So, Craig and I set out to research the other therapists in our area.
We found a perfect fit. When I said in this post that I didn’t really know where “here” was until the last few weeks, it was because we were waiting for Natalie to start neurofeedback with a new therapist. Laura Bratt at Midwest Neurofeedback has been working with Natalie since the last week of May. She actually did Natalie’s initial consultation in late February, but we had to wait until two appointment slots opened up before Natalie could begin. Natalie’s appointments are at the same two times every week. They are her times until she is finished. While we had to wait to begin therapy, this is a much more organized way to schedule, and we can easily plan around it.
Natalie does not have a specific diagnosis. Simply put, she has brain dysregulation. Her brain waves are basically flip-flopped from the normal pattern, meaning that when she should have fast waves, she experiences more slow waves, and vise versa. Laura told us that Natalie was in THE most uncomfortable brain state a person can be in. Adults with the brain patterns Natalie shows are often described as having hairpin triggers. Yes, that was our Natalie in a nutshell. Her brain is also very inflexible, which we could have told you as her parents. She does not switch gears quickly, and it disturbs her when it has to happen. She was basically white knuckling her way through life.
Laura not only gave Natalie an initial EEG, but she also had her take the WebNeuro Wellness assessment. One of the most significant things this test showed about Natalie is that because of her brain wave dysregulation, she has a huge negativity bias. If you click on the WebNeuro link above and scroll to the 3rd page of this sample report, Negativity Bias is at the top of the page. Natalie’s score was 1.5……she sees everything in the negative. I looked at her report, and while it didn’t surprise me, it broke my heart. All I want is for my baby to be happy, and her brain literally prevents her from seeing the world in a positive light.
So, how did Natalie’s brain become dysregulated? That is hard to say. Laura told us that if she had been talking to an adult with the type of dysregulation Natalie has, she would tell them that it was probably the result of a trauma experienced before the age of 5. Well, most of Natalie’s life has been before the age of 5. Laura confirmed that it could have been the trauma from being poked and prodded in the NICU as a newborn. But, Natalie’s leaky gut and the resulting vitamin/mineral deficiencies and the inflammation in her body could have contributed to her brain wave dysregulation. My dad died when Natalie was 5. Perhaps the emotional trauma of losing her grandfather could have contributed. We will really never know exactly why, but that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that now we have a plan and a team of wonderful, dedicated, loving people in Natalie’s corner.
The only downside? Neurofeedback is not typically covered by insurance. But to be honest, anything that has actually helped Natalie get better has not been covered by insurance. Not our naturopath’s office visit fees. Not the allergy testing. Not the neurofeedback. The title of this blog post is a quote from Healing Young Brains: The Neurofeedback Solution. “When you rescue the child, you save the adult.” I feel like we are finally on the right track, and we’re not so worried about Natalie’s future anymore. We have been and will continue to work our tails off to rescue our child, and save the adult she is meant to become.
Resources to learn more: