NeuroFit: workout for your brain

Imagine you have to cross the Niagara Falls on an unsteady high wire. You may ask yourself ‘why?’ or ‘what do I get from it?’, but instead ignore those questions and just do it. You feel your legs getting shaky, your hands getting sweaty and your heart beating louder than the thoughts in your head. I bet most of you wouldn’t make it to the other side on dry feet… Now compare it to slacklining with your friends in a park. Your chances of getting across without losing your balance rise drastically. The reason behind this seems very intuitive – although the physical challenges are fairly similar in both situations, the state of mind makes the difference.

In situations in which you feel overwhelmed, nervous or agitated your performance will almost always suffer more than when you feel calm and focused. Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but would you believe me if I told you that you can get a better grade in a math exam, not only by solving numerous quadratic equations, but also by simply knowing how to control your brain? A recent study by the Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Sciences showed that neurofeedback can modulate the emotional states of individuals and improve their performance in difficult tasks. So, what is neurofeedback?

As Wikipedia describes, “neurofeedback […] uses real-time displays of brain activity – most commonly electroencephalography (EEG) – in an attempt to teach self-regulation of brain function”. Let’s break this down. Consider yourself an actor who is practicing an accent for a role in a movie. In order to achieve it, you may require feedback regarding your progress at some point. You record yourself speaking in that accent and listen back to it. This is (almost) exactly how neurofeedback works. Your voice is the brain activity and the recording system represents the EEG. Your goal is to perfect the accent, which corresponds to self-regulation of brain function, and playing the recording back is neurofeedback. As most of us do not know how to interpret brain signals recorded via EEG, during the neurofeedback sessions these signals are translated into auditory or visual stimuli that everyone can understand. However, not everything that is being recorded is fed back. The raw EEG signal can be separated into multiple components, one of which are brain waves (in a more scientific language neural oscillations) that result not only from single cell activity but from the synchronised firing of larger brain areas. There are several categories of brain waves that can be discriminated by their frequency. Different frequencies are usually associated with various cognitive states. For example, so-called alpha waves (approx. 4-12 Hz) occur during meditation, whereas beta waves (>13 Hz) happen when we are concentrating.
Neurofeedback has a very broad potential, because ultimately it helps the brain do what it is supposed to be doing instead of what it is actually doing. Theoretically speaking, the goal could be anything that our brain is already capable of.

So far, neurofeedback is mostly used for treating children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These children are very active and most of the time have difficulties staying focused. During neurofeedback sessions, they are asked, for example, to “mind control” an airplane on a computer screen. If they concentrate enough and an EEG detects beta waves, the plane stays in the air. The moment they distract themselves, the plane starts to crash. This sounds way more fun than taking some medicine, don’t you agree? As a matter of fact, our mind is such a powerful tool that, via neurofeedback, it is being used to improve treatments for several conditions, such as sleeping and anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, depression or even epilepsy. Maybe future technological developments and scientific discoveries will allow us to control more than an airplane on a computer screen, but so far let’s just fantasise about crossing the Niagara Falls on an unsteady high wire.

by Rukhshona Kayumova & Annika Michalek

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