Neurofeedback: Retraining Your Brain to Focus

Françoise Gordon August 21, 2018

“I took him to every specialist imaginable. I had sleepless nights. All I could do was cry because I said, ‘There’s something wrong with my son and they can’t figure it out,’” said Leslie Santos, a Long Island mother whose 4-and-a-half year old son, Tristan, had sustained a concussion while running through tunnels at the playground.

After that, he wasn’t quite the same.

Santos knew her little boy, but now “every time he played … he was losing his balance.”

“He would look like a drunk kid, like a little drunk man.”

They also identified Tristan as having convergence insufficiency disorder—a condition where both eyes can’t work together. Tristan was seeing double because of it, and had glasses prescribed for it. He was also having absence seizures and getting blank stares.

So she sought out a medical opinion, and then another, and another.

“I went to cardiologists, I went everywhere,” Santos recalled, but she wasn’t getting answers. Finally, one day Santos’s aunt told her about her dentist, whose daughter suffered with similar symptoms—and Santos found answers in one doctor.

The doctor was none other than Kamran Fallahpour, director of the Brain Resource Center. After taking a quantitative EEG—or “brain map”—of Tristan’s brain, Fallahpour showed Tristan’s parents the traces of the injury and how Tristan’s brainmap was showing how his brain was lighting up in certain areas as having a functional disturbance as compared to norms for his age. This was likely the result of the brain injury he had sustained.

They finally had proof Tristan had suffered a concussion.

Santos started Tristan on treatment at the Brain Resource Center with Fallahpour that included neurofeedback—a therapy method that uses non-intrusive brain computer interface and allows you to regulate and train brain functions—and now, in August 2018, he has had a year and a half of therapy.

“[Now] he doesn’t get the blank stares,” Santos said.

And the glasses?

“I don’t need them anymore, Mom.”

Tristan’s ophthalmologist agreed Tristan no longer needs glasses, and Fallahpour believes the changes may be related to improvements in the visual processing areas in the brain, along with other improvements that he has made by doing this type of brain function training.

What Is Neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a type of monitoring that allows real time scanning of the brain. Through this, the user learns how to control and regulate their own brain by using audio and visual stimuli as feedback.

Neurofeedback has been used in therapy for numerous neurological conditions, such as: ADD, ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, migraines, sleep disorders, stress, and so on.

It helps regulate and rewire the brain by monitoring activity in areas of the brain, and by using conditioning to reinforce positive changes in the brain. Sounds complicated, but from the user’s point of view it’s not: Whether it’s music or movie, you keep your attention on the media with a relaxed focus for 40 minutes at a time. While learning to regulate your brain, you reap the benefits!

There’s more to it than just watching a movie. This is a beneficial therapy, after all, so some work is required. You’ll actually be pretty tired afterwards. Brain retraining is a lot of work!

Before neurofeedback therapy even begins, the clinic needs to make a sophisticated brain map of the patient to determine where the functional (not structural) disturbances are. Once this “map” is created, the true fun begins.

A typical day goes as follows: The patient picks music, an audiobook, or a movie, is sat in front of a screen, and then has conductive gel and sensors applied to their head in spots corresponding with the areas of the brain that need the most attention as indicated by the brain map.

A patient undergoing a neurofeedback session at the Brain Resource Center in Manhattan, August 2018. (Shenghua Sung)
A patient participating in a neurofeedback session at the Brain Resource Center in Manhattan, August 2018. (Shenghua Sung)

The sensors track brain activity in real time that corresponds to arousal states and the level of activation of the brain in that region.

And during this process, you can still see the activity generated by various parts of your brain, and shape that activity toward your recovery goal.

A patient undergoing a neurofeedback session at the Brain Resource Center in Manhattan, August 2018. (Shenghua Sung)
The sensors track brain activity in real time that corresponds to arousal states and the level of activation of the brain in that region. (Shenghua Sung)

By keeping calm and focused, you see the errors you make on a computer screen in real time, which cause the film or track to play or pause, and you can adjust accordingly. Even tensing up your face or clenching your jaws will be reflected on the screen, and it can pause your session momentarily until you get back “in the zone.”

I, Françoise Gordon, am now receiving neurofeedback as therapy for brain trauma.
Having unexpectedly suffered a brain injury (TBI) back on June 14, 2001, I, today, still want to improve my dysarthria (motor speech disorder resulting from neurological injury) among other things. I experienced a contrecoup brain injury 17 years ago when my brain had hit both sides of the interior of my skull, as my head hit the windshield and the pavement beneath me.

I would like everything to improve, but I’ll start with my speech.

Who Uses Neurofeedback?

One slightly newer neurologically impaired patient, David, unexpectedly suffered a stroke three years ago at the age of 46. He was at a bar casually watching the NBA Finals with some friends. And just like that, his life took a drastic change.

After thoroughly researching his condition and talking to people about it, David’s wife recommended he begin therapy at the Brain Resource Center, which included neurofeedback along with a few other neuromodulation techniques. He started it 18 months after the stroke.

Today, the general manager of a major record label, David admits, “I have an amazing job … I just want to be myself again.”

With the map formed, the patient returns to the office several times a week to receive neurofeedback. The average going rate of the treatment can be anywhere from $175–$250 per session.

This neurofeedback therapy has the capability of rewiring the brain, helping improve damages, and strengthening the most vital organ of the human body.

Fallahpour sees both children and adults in his clinic.

“When we work with children, issues are usually within the spectrum of ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities, mild autism, headaches, anxiety, and usually some related academic and behavioral issues,” he said.

A major benefit of neurofeedback is that it allows both children and adults to improve cognition and self regulation, and to often get off, or reduce, the drugs they had been prescribed—a common desire of many participants.

According to Fallahpour, most parents bring their children to the center because the school asked the child be put on stimulant medication and parents have concerns, or the children have already tried medication and suffered side effects or no beneficial effects.

Sheila, a patient who battled anxiety and depression for much of her life, had already tried medication.

“[Medication] didn’t heal my brain…it just made me dull and boring…I bored myself to death,” she said. “[Medication] just masks the symptoms.”

When Sheila was detoxing from Depakote and Effexor, she remembered being on the couch experiencing horrible nightmares for three long days.

She described the difference between that time on medication and the time spent doing neurofeedback like this: “It was like walking into one of the Warner Brothers cartoons.”

“The colors were like I had never seen,” she said. “The birds…everything was in focus.”

Sheila said, “Pills do not heal connections in the brain.”

What the Journey Is Like

After doing neurofeedback for four months now, I am noticing the improvement in myself and in my speech that I’d always been seeking. What is visible to an outsider today is the fluidity of my speaking voice compared to what it was pre-therapy. I no longer stammer like I once had, and the word-finding ability has done wonders for my self-confidence. To have acquired such speaking upgrades for a public audience is already more than I could ask for, but the fact that I also notice improvements an observer can’t see is beyond my wildest dreams.

For instance, I have regained the ability to read without immense hardship. To now be able to come up with words without much struggle and to read with ease are two skills I completely attribute to neurofeedback.

Instead of accidentally, but constantly, rereading the same line of prose in a passage, I am now able to skip down to the next line without any complication, just as healthy brains allow. And with this therapy, that’s what I get—a healthy brain.

In cases like David’s and other sufferers of TBIs, Fallahpour remarks how immensely gratifying it is to see the improvement.

“You see someone who lived a very healthy and productive life without any issues in the past and all of a sudden an incident like a stroke happens … then their life basically changes overnight,” he said. “And very often these changes are devastating.”

“To see them improve and to get back to where they were—it’s really rewarding,” the doctor said.

Fallahpour has over 15 years of experience in the field and is well aware that there are several brain treatment centers in New York City.

Dr. Kamran Fallahpour. (Shenghua Sung)

“The Brain Resource Center is unique because it brings the best and latest state of the art assessment and treatment interventions under one roof,” he said.

Mental Fitness: Neurofeedback as the Brain Gym

For Bruce Clay, who started neurofeedback two years ago, Fallahpour’s Brain Resource Center is very much like a gym.

In a gym, “you can play basketball…you can do weightlifting, you can go swimming.”

With neurofeedback, he can exercise his brain in different ways. “That’s really my goal: Improving … mental dexterity,” he said. “I feel calmer, and I think there is more concentration.”

“It is like the modern-day equivalent of deep meditation … because you get exact feedback, in exactly what you’re doing.”

Clay is the EVP of Finance and Corporate Development at Vital Neuro, a neuroscience start-up focusing on mental health, so he had multiple reasons when he first sought out Fallahpour.

“My initial [goal] … was to do some personal [mental] training for peak performance. My secondary goal was, explore it and see if there’s a business opportunity somewhere.”

Clay continued, “And my over-arching interest and goals throughout my career regarding neurofeedback, is that it is a tremendous boon to humanity.”

Sheila says her goal now is to have a fit brain, and to her, “brain fitness is just as important as physical fitness.”

Sheila, almost 69, had an identical twin who died from prefrontal lobe dementia. So when Sheila saw a red spot in her own prefrontal cortex on her initial brain map—she wanted to improve it.

“Now things are resolving beautifully … I’m working on peak performance issues because I have no symptoms of depression or anxiety anymore,” Sheila said.

“I think I’m pretty sharp now. I don’t know how long I have to live, but I want to be around in the year 2050. I would love to see what [that] world looks like,” Sheila said.

“I would love to be able to understand, integrate my years of wisdom and knowledge with the present. And be a fully-functioning, productive member of society.”