Examining Neurofeedback for Learning Difficulties

One of the more intriguing therapy options available for learning difficulties–ADHD and ASD in particular–is neurofeedback treatment, sometimes called EEG Biofeedback.

It has been around for quite a long time now, over 30 years. However, due to inconsistent study results compared to more established treatments such as Fast ForWord, and concerns that the effects of the therapy wear off when it ends, there is not a lot written about neurofeedback choices, aside from the websites of the various centers that offer the therapy.

Nevertheless, for some children it is an interesting drug-free option, especially if you have had no success with more mainstream treatments.  To help with the process of drawing up a neurofeedback treatment plan, here’s a quick overview of how to get started with neurofeedback and what some of the most popular neurofeedback systems are.

How is Neurofeedback Treatment Administered?

To get started with neurofeedback treatment, you need access to two things: the hardware that actually takes the relevant measurements, e.g. an EEG helmet or armband, and the software that creates the exercises and tracks the data from the hardware to guide your treatment.

Home or Center

There are two ways to gain access to a neurofeedback system: either by buying a system for your home or by finding a clinician in your area who owns one who will provide neurofeedback treatment as a service.

One advantage to seeking neurofeedback therapy through a treatment center rather than setting up a home system is that you will have access to a sophisticated system – the higher end hardware and software components of neurofeedback systems together will often cost several thousand dollars —  and you will have more comfort that your child is using the right protocols.

On the other hand, a full course of neurofeedback treatment administered by a clinician is not cheap.  A typical neurofeedback session can cost around a hundred dollars, and clinicians will often recommend several dozen sessions.

Aside from the cost considerations, seeking neurofeedback therapy through a treatment center will also give you the benefit of an experienced professional. A professional can make treatment recommendations, tailor treatment to your situation and help you figure out the logistics of fitting a neurofeedback therapy into your schedule.

If you opt for a home system, your purchase might still grant you access to a clinician or analyst who can help you use the system and make sense of your data via phone or email. One advantage of having a home system is unlimited access, so you can administer frequent neurofeedback treatment sessions without having to schedule appointments with a third party – and you may even save money in the long run if you plan to use the system intensively.

Some neurofeedback companies market their systems primarily to home users while others discourage anyone other than licensed professionals from purchasing their systems and don’t provide customer support to other kinds of users. Finally, some have a two-pronged approach so you can choose to use their systems at home or though a treatment system depending on what works best for you.

Popular Neurofeedback Systems

When forming a neurofeedback treatment plan, the home or in-center choice may come down to what is available in your area.  Bear in mind that neurofeedback creates feedback loops and so can target different skills — practitioners tend to have particular areas of interest that may or may not coincide with your child’s needs.

For example, some systems emphasize concentration or different aspects of executive functioning. Others state helping with relaxation as a central goal while still others seek to improve general brain functioning. Therefore, take note of which systems are more closely aligned with your desired outcomes.

Some of the most commonly used neurofeedback systems are:

1. Play Attention (home-based)

Play Attention is a home-based neurofeedback program that consists of a BodyWave biofeedback armband and software you install on your Mac or PC. Using Play Attention involves playing simple games while receiving feedback from the armband about how hard you’re concentrating.

The software and armband are available together for a little under $2,000. Buying the software also gives you access to an adviser who will review your data and offer guidance.

2. BrainMaster

BrainMaster offers a variety of qEEG-based neurofeedback hardware devices and software packages.

BrainMaster’s hardware devices typically cost several thousand dollars. Their software is available for Windows and ranges from neurofeedback game packages that cost a couple hundred dollars each to programs for analyzing EEG data that cost around a thousand dollars.

The cost associated with setting up a BrainMaster system is higher than that of systems like Play Attention, which are designed for home users. The most cost- and time-efficient way of getting started with BrainMaster neurofeedback is by signing up for a session at a local neurofeedback center that provides BrainMaster neurofeedback services.

For a list of BrainMaster centers in the United States, see BrainMaster’s list of affiliated clinicians.

3. BrainTrain

Like BrainMaster, BrainTrain makes an assortment of hardware devices and software packages targeted at professionals rather than home users. Their brain training software includes both games that are played entirely through EEG data and games that are played through other controllers but that incorporate EEG data.

As with BrainMaster, BrainTrain systems generally take several thousand dollars to set up, but pricing for treatment is at the discretion of practitioners.

4. NeurOptimal

NeurOptimal is a neurofeedback system that aims to improve focus, relaxation and overall brain functioning.

For home use, NeurOptimal offers the NeurOptimal Personal Trainer Bundle, which for $5,500 includes a Windows 10 NeurOptimal system, necessary hardware and software for getting started with NeurOptimal, training materials, a year’s worth of access to a “Personal Trainer” and 300 sessions.

Alternatively, you can find a NeurOptimal Trainer in your area.

5. Brain State

Brain State aims to help the brain “relax and rebalance itself” and improve overall brain functioning including learning, memory, sleep and stress resilience. It creates an “acoustic brain mirror” by providing feedback through sound – in this sense it differs from neurofeedback systems that often use primarily visual feedback.

Brain State is only available through licensed clinicians.

Does Neurofeedback Work?

This is a debated question. A number of respected clinicians – folks on the frontline using biofeedback – are as confident about the efficacy of biofeedback as Gemm Learning is with Fast ForWord.  They see the impact of the therapy first hand.

However, the research on neurofeedback is more mixed. In a fairly comprehensive study, the NIH concluded as follows:

[Neurofeedback’s] has been questioned in terms of conclusive scientific evidence of its effectiveness. Moreover, it is an expensive procedure which is not covered by many insurance companies. It is also time-consuming and its benefits are not long-lasting. Finally, it might take several months to see the desired improvements.

The factor that stands out for us is the that the benefits are not long-lasting. Neurofeedback works more like physical fitness exercises.  It strengthens aspects of learning that need continued exercise to stick.  It reminds the brain how to focus.  Without those reminders, the inattentiveness will gradually return.  This varies from Fast ForWord (by Gemm Learning) and a number of other interventions, which work on more foundational aspects of learning – skills that are used all day every day and so any gains made will hold.

Making The Right Choice For Your Child

As you can see, there is a diverse array of neurofeedback systems available. Each system tends to have its own unique angle – for example, Play Attention’s emphasis on concentration or Brain State’s use of acoustic feedback.

To find out more about a particular neurofeedback system, try searching for reviews online. For an in-depth look at other neurofeedback options, also see Wikipedia’s comparison of neurofeedback software.

Note that brain-based programs like Fast ForWord and neurofeedback work very differently.  The advertised sweet-spot of neurofeedback is ADHD, while for Fast ForWord it is auditory processing and reading. While neurofeedback treatments create feedback loops as a way of shaping new behaviors and routines, Fast ForWord and other neuroscience-based programs train the underlying cognitive skills.