I'm a behavioral neuroscientist by training. This means that when I went to school at UCLA (link is external) (Go Bruins!) I made it my focus to understand how neurochemical and neurophysical changes in the brain affect the way we interact with the world. At the time, I was primarily interested in how these things relate to addiction (link is external), but more and more I feel obligated to share the endless other ways this interaction is crucial for our wellbeing.
You see, everything that happens to us is, at its core, an interaction between the world and our brain in some way. This is true for your ability to read these words, tie your shoelaces, feel depressed or excited and even start walking. But as many of you who are reading these pages know, this world-brain interaction often leaves us wanting more.
Sometimes, there are real problems - like processing difficulties in autism that make interaction with others difficult and life a challenge. At other times the difficulty is more subtle but still troubling - think anxiety (link is external) that makes driving hard or attention problems that may or may not meet criteria for ADHD (link is external). Finally, some of us feel as if we're functioning "fine" but want to do better - we want better sleep (link is external), better focus, improved memory and more. As it currently stands, we primarily turn to medications to address these issues. We take stimulants (link is external) to help us focus better and work longer; sedatives and hypnotics to help our sleep; anxiolytics to make us calmer. The pills work well enough and we feel like we've licked the problem. But new problems arise...
We become dependent on these medications (there's that addiction link again) and they impact other facets of our functioning that we weren't exactly looking for. They make us lose or gain weight, they leave us feeling groggy, they make us feel depressed and irritable as we're coming down and they cause other side effects that feel unavoidable if we want to address those deficits we care so much about. We wish we could do something else but don't know what, so we keep going for the pills.
This is where biofeedback and neurofeedback (link is external) can be helpful. For over 40 years technology has allowed practitioners of these techniques to help individuals who are struggling with attention, anxiety, sleep, focus, obsessive thoughts, seizures, irritable bowel syndrome, ADHD, autism, brain injury and more. And these therapies are targeted, hitting the specific problem areas while minimizing collateral impact and side effects. It's like the best kept secret that doesn't need to be a secret at all.
When I was getting my Ph.D., I never heard about biofeedback. It wasn't until I was searching for ways to help my addiction treatment (link is external) clients that this biofeedback (link is external) became such a big part of our toolbox. And the reasoning behind it is simple:
Rather than putting chemicals into the body to cause the changes we're looking for, biofeedback subtly teaches the brain (or body) how to produce those effects by itself. Over time, the body begins working in the ways we want it to without needing the help.
The pills produce their effects by changing the body's chemistry. Biofeedback and neurofeedback are like going to the gym - through the work they change the body itself!
Here are the top 5 ways, and the reasons, why biofeedback and neurofeedback should become part of your best kept secret to getting the life you want:
Focus and attention - Whether you meet criteria for ADHD (link is external) or not, many of us are looking to improve our ability (or our childrens' ability) to focus and pay attention (link is external). The trouble is (and I suffer from this too as I mention in my TEDx talk (link is external)) that our prefrontal-cortex is not working as effectively as it should. In terms of EEG, this typically means that the frequency of activity in this part of the brain is too low (Theta instead of Alpha and Beta). Simple neurofeedback intervention can gradually train the prefrontal cortex to increase its production of Alpha and SMR (Sensorimotor Rhythm), leaving you feeling more alert, focused and attentive. I've seen clients achieve long-term changes that are at least equivalent to medication effects within two months of training!
Improved sleep - There can be a number of ways for sleep disturbance to occur - obsessive thoughts that won't let you go at night, physical tension and restlessness that makes relaxation difficult or trauma-like anxiety that seems to get worse particularly when you close your eyes. Each of these can be caused by a completely different brain pattern and still cause what feels like insomnia. Too much high frequency activity in the prefrontal cortex can lead to obsessive thoughts, if it happens closer to the motor cortex it leads to physical tension, and too much beta in the posterior (back) of the brain when you close your eyes can cause anxiety. With the right qEEG (link is external) assessment, your practitioner can target the area of particular concern and reduce the severity of the effect. The results can be staggering and help some who have been using sleep medication for decades to finally kick the habit!
Generalized anxiety and stress reduction - We live in a stressful world and we rarely figure out ways to reign in that stress. But we know that chronic, long-term stress can cause cause some terrible problems - cancer, hypertension, strokes and heart attacks are but a short part of that list. Simple Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training - think meditation through a computer - can help you learn not only to be more mindful of your stress response but also how to control it. It's no wonder that HRV training has been shown to improve blood pressure, increase mood, reduce anxiety, improve performance in sports and cognition and so much more! By committing to HRV training for a few short months (link is external) you can substantially change your wellbeing forever.
Alcoholism and addiction - While I'm not a big fan of those terms, you get the point - problematic substance use ruins lives. A number of different protocols including many of those already mentioned have been shown to reduce anxiety and sleep issues (link is external) commonly faced by problem drinkers and drug users. But a specific protocol - Alpha/Theta training (link is external) - has long been shown to help alcohol sufferers by training the brain to produce more of that slow-brain activity that alcohol was bringing about. For long-term drinkers, this can be incredibly helpful in bringing their brain closer to normal functioning much more quickly than it would otherwise. A faster recovery means less of a chance of relapse in the process. That's good for everyone!
Peak performance - People are using neurofeedback and biofeedback to help with their golf game (link is external), improve the focus at work and increase their creativity. At Alternatives, we often see family members of clients begin practicing because they see the incredible impact the services can have. It's been reported that the Italian soccer team (link is external) uses it to optimize performance (and reduce brain trauma from headers) and actors and dancers (link is external) can use certain protocols to improve their creative states while reducing anxiety. My favorite part of the peak performance application is that it moves us away from the idea that therapies must only be used to overcome problems. In reality, they are much better suited to preventing them in the first place!
Biofeedback is an incredible tool that I predict will be gaining more and more popularity as the technology gets cheaper and more accessible. As it stands, most of it requires highly trained practitioners and some serious equipment (except for HRV training, which can be done relatively cheaply).
I encourage everyone reading this to being trying some of these alternatives approaches to solving these ultra-common problems. I didn't even address the migraine (link is external) therapies and autism approaches, both of which are incredibly helpful when addressing these difficult issues. By incorporating biofeedback and neurofeedback into your life, not only will your quality of life likely improve but you will be putting yourself in less risk of overdoses, physical dependence on the drugs and more.
No Tricks, Just Treats: Homemade Gluten-Free Halloween Candy
By Silvana Nardone
Can Halloween be sinfully good and good for you? The answer is yes. Sweet Medjool dates are transformed into caramel, and extra-dark 91 percent chocolate — the darker, the better — enrobes each candy with its rich, complex flavor. Plus, healthy fats like coconut oil and unrefined sugars like maple syrup mean you can treat yourself to some Halloween fun. One bite of these chocolate candies and you’ll know there are no tricks, just real treats!
Pumpkin Spice Coconut Butter Cups
Makes: 12 cups
Ingredients: 1 cup extra-dark chocolate, preferably made for coating, chopped 1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree 1/2 cup coconut butter 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup 1 tablespoon pumpkin spice 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon salt
Directions: Line a 12-cup mini cupcake pan with 12 liners. Bring water to a low simmer in a double boiler. Place two-thirds of the chocolate in the double boiler and melt to 115 degrees. Stir in the remaining one-third of the chocolate and let sit for 5 minutes; stir to combine. Let the chocolate cool down to 90 degrees. Pour about 1 teaspoon melted chocolate into each liner and use a butter knife to coat the bottom and sides. Let set, at least 1 hour or overnight. Reheat the chocolate to 90 degrees F. In a high-speed blender or food processor, combine the pumpkin puree, coconut butter, maple syrup, pumpkin spice, vanilla and salt. Divide the mixture into 12 balls and flatten slightly; place one in each of the chocolate shells. Top each with melted chocolate to cover completely. Let set, at least 1 hour or overnight. Store at room temperature in an airtight container or refrigerate.
Per serving: Calories 151; Fat 14 (Saturated 10 g); Sodium 12 mg; Carbohydrate 10 g; Fiber 4 g; Sugars 5 g; Protein 2 g
Superfood Chocolate Bars
Makes: 18 pieces
Ingredients: 1 cup raw whole almonds 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup 1 cup extra-dark chocolate, preferably made for coating, chopped Seeds for topping, such as chia seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, place the almonds and maple syrup in the middle, and toss to coat; spread evenly in a single layer and roast, stirring once, until toasted, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Bring water to a low simmer in a double boiler. Place two-thirds of the chocolate in the double boiler and melt to 115 degrees F. Stir in the remaining one-third of the chocolate and let sit for 5 minutes; stir to combine. Let the chocolate cool down to 90 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fold the almonds into the cooled chocolate and spread in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet. Top with the seeds and let set, at least 1 hour or overnight. Store at room temperature in an airtight container or refrigerate.
Per serving: Calories 128; Fat 12 (Saturated 4 g); Sodium 4 mg; Carbohydrate 7 g; Fiber 3 g; Sugars 3 g; Protein 4 g
Did You Know?
SIRRI offers these services
for both children & adults:
Neurofeedback & Biofeedback
QEEG / Brain Mapping
Cognitive Retraining: memory, processing & problem solving skills
Attention, Concentration & Focus Training
Auditory & Visual Processing
Reading Development: fluency & comprehension
Balance, Coordination & Motor Planning Development
Stress & Anxiety Management
You May Be Able To Train Your Brain To Be Fearless
October 10, 2016
Senior Writer, The Huffington Post
All your fears, stresses and anxieties have one thing in common. They are sensed by a pair of pea-sized patches of neurons, called the amygdala, sitting deep inside your brain. So what if you could control your amygdala? What if you could change your brain and become calmer and braver?
That idea has a particular appeal for people suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s easier said than done. The amygdala is an old part of the brain that does its job automatically, without much care for commands from more conscious parts of the mind. You can’t just tell an oversensitive amygdala to quiet down.
But a brain training technique known as neurofeedback might help people find a way to change such involuntary and automatic brain processes. In recent years, the technique is being developed and refined to address mental health issues.The treatment involves monitoring a person’s brain activity in real time using electroencephalography (EEG) or functional MRI brain scans, and showing those patterns of activity to the person so they can try to boost or reduce them ― basically, changing how their brain functions.
In a new study published last month in Biological Psychiatry, researchers set up a series of experiments to use neurofeedback to teach several dozen people how to regulate their amygdala activity.
“People were able to use this new EEG model to learn how to control their brain activity in a deeply located brain area, the amygdala,” said Dr. Talma Hendler, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the Tel Aviv Center for Brain Functions in Israel.
Reading brain signals from deep parts of the brain is difficult, especially with a cheap and accessible method. Functional MRI, or fMRI, can access these areas, but the device is a complex, gigantic magnet that you can’t just set up at home, even if you could afford it.
EEG, on the other hand, is cheaper and simpler. It mainly involves a few electrodes placed on the scalp. The downside of EEG is that it can’t accurately zoom in on structures deep in the brain. So, the researchers combined the two methods. They used the detail provided by fMRI to tease out the amygdala’s signal from the electrical activity picked up by the EEG.
“[This method] enables home-based imaging that [targets] brain regions relevant for our mental health,” Hendler said. “It opens a wide horizon of treatment possibilities for the mentally ill, but also for everyone on a daily basis as an empowering tool for mental activity and well being.”
For the experiments, Hendler and her colleagues asked the volunteers to listen to a sound. They were then instructed to lower the volume of the sound by “exercising mental strategies.”
It sounds like a vague instruction. What are the mental strategies that can, seemingly telepathically, control the volume of a sound? No one really knows, and that’s sort of the point. People have to try many different ways of thinking ― thereby changing their brain activity ― until they stumble upon a desired activity pattern.
What the participants didn’t know was that the volume of the sound was programmed to change based on the electrical activity of their own amygdala, and it would lower if the participants managed to dial down that activity. In other words, they were listening to their own amygdala’s firing, disguised in a sound.
A series of tests afterward showed that this game seemed to help participants become more capable of regulating the activity of their amygdala. In response to viewing a series of images, for example, the participants’ amygdalas seemed less sensitive compared to those of people in another group given a fake neurofeedback treatment. The participants in this study were healthy. But Hendler believes that people with mental health problems, too, would respond to training with neurofeedback.
“We already have indication for this (unpublished yet) that people suffering from depression, chronic pain and post traumatic disorders are able to learn and greatly benefit from such training,” Hendler said.
If the method proves useful in treating mental health conditions in the future, this low-cost, personalized treatment could be used at home to complement and sometimes substitute medications, Hendler said.
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Developing brain regions in children hardest hit by sleep deprivation
October 4, 2016
University of Zurich
Sleep is vital for humans. If adults remain awake for longer than usual, the brain responds with an increased need for deep sleep. This is measured in the form of "slow wave activity" using electroencephalography (EEG). In adults, these deep-sleep waves are most pronounced in the prefrontal cortex -- the brain region which plans and controls actions, solves problems and is involved in the working memory.
Sleep deprivation in children increases deep sleep in posterior brain regions
For the first time, researchers from UZH have now demonstrated that curtailed sleep in children also results in locally increased deep sleep. "However, a child's brain reacts differently to acute sleep deprivation than an adult's," stresses Salome Kurth from the Pulmonary Clinic at University Hospital Zurich. "The deep-sleep effect doesn't appear in the front regions of the brain like in adults, but rather in the back -- in the parietal and occipital lobes." The team of researchers also discovered that the heightened need for sleep -- measured as an increase in deep sleep -- in children is associated with the myelin content in certain nerve fiber bundles: the optic radiation. This brain region is part of the visual system responsible for spatial perception and processing multi-sensorial input. The level of myelin -- a fatty sheath around the nerve fibers, which accelerates the transfer of electrical signals -- is a yardstick for brain maturity and increases in the course of childhood and adolescence. The new results now reveal that the higher the myelin content in a brain region, the more similar the deep-sleep effect is to adults.
Deep-sleep effect depends on extent of brain maturity
In order to study the effects of sleep deprivation in children a collaboration was launched with the University of Colorado Boulder (USA). The sleep researchers measured the brain activity in 13 healthy five to 12-year-olds as they slept. The EEG measurements with a total of 128 electrodes were conducted twice overnight at home with the families. On the first occasion, the children went to bed at their normal bedtime; the second time, they stayed awake until late and thus received exactly half the normal amount of sleep. The scientists also determined the myelin content in the brain with the aid of a recently developed, non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging technique.
"Our results show that the deep-sleep effect occurs specifically in a particular region of the brain and is linked to the myelin content," sums up Kurth. According to the researcher, this effect might only be temporary, i.e. only occur during sensitive developmental phases in childhood or adolescence. The scientists assume that the quality of sleep is jointly responsible for the neuronal connections to develop optimally during childhood and adolescence. Consequently, it is important for a child to sleep sufficiently during this life phase. According to international guidelines, the recommended amount of sleep for children aged 6 to 13 is 9 to 11 hours per night.
University of Zurich. "Developing brain regions in children hardest hit by sleep deprivation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 October 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161004114514.htm>.