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How can neurofeedback devices enhance brain activity?

It is 2024 and humans are not yet (and won’t ever be) tired of looking for more ways to improve brain performance, and we are here for it. Luckily, this era brings us technology and all its jaw-dropping innovations – neurofeedback devices included. But can we really trust them to do the job? Let’s dive into their pros and cons to find out, shall we?



First, some context. Long story short, neurofeedback kicked off back in the late 1960s when Dr. Joe Kamiya started using EEG to peek into consciousness1. He found out that by rewarding his subjects, he could tweak their brain activity. Then came Dr. Barry Sterman and his cats. Sterman trained cats to boost their sensory motor rhythm (SMR) by rewarding them when they got it right2. Later on, Sterman teamed up with NASA to test how exposure to lunar landing fuel affected brains3. Cat lovers, embrace for impact.


Cats exposed to the fuel experienced drowsiness, then headaches, hallucinations, seizures, until finally reaching death. But here's the twist: the cats from Sterman's earlier experiment didn't suffer the same fate. Their brains seemed to have developed a resistance to the toxic fuel. Using these insights, Dr. Sterman started training epilepsy patients in SMR to cut down on their seizures. And guess what? Sixty percent of them saw a significant drop in their seizures by 20 to 100%4. Even today, NASA's astronaut training program includes SMR and neurofeedback training. And the results? Better focus, tougher brains, less stress5.


In case you’re lost as to how neurofeedback devices even work, just know that at the core of neurofeedback devices lies biofeedback – a method that allows for better control over bodily functions by monitoring brainwaves via sensors positioned on the scalp (remember EEG? You should, I know you’ve been keeping up with us on socials! But if you haven’t, go check out this reel6). Here’s an example of a neurofeedback device at work: you’re wearing an EEG headset and watching a clip. Every time your brain reacts in an unwanted way, the clip gets interrupted. Total bummer, right? Naturally, your brain starts to learn to chill out and stop reacting that way because, let's face it, no one likes interruptions. And voila, your brain is conditioned – that's how a neurofeedback device works its magic! 


Now, how is all this related to sports? Well, traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic as long-term effects in athletes have come to light. Common consequences of TBI include migraines, general anxiety, sleep disorders, and cognitive problems7.



Turns out neurofeedback training is pretty good at improving attention, managing stress8 and even promoting flow9 (if you read the blog on flow10, you’ll know how cool that is). Research also indicates that using these devices can result in noticeable enhancements in focus, memory, cognitive flexibility, spatial working memory11,12 and even heart rate variability – a crucial factor impacting stress, focus, and cognition13.


I know that all sounds incredible, but let’s not forget to consider the cons. Neurofeedback can be quite expensive, difficult to use and not very convenient for portability. Some neurofeedback devices may also have technical issues with biosensing data and software issues. Choosing the appropriate neurofeedback device hinges largely on personal needs and objectives. It's also crucial to assess whether the device is backed by scientific research and approved by relevant health organizations. So when you read blogs and articles on the subject, check the source! Just writing this blog I found at least two other blogs with made-up scientific articles (yeah, that’s a thing – large organisations will do anything for sales sometimes) so be thorough in your research.


In conclusion, it seems the list of advantages for neurofeedback devices largely outweigh the cons – you just need to know how to choose. I suggest reading this14 for a full comparison between some of the most currently well-known devices. Okay, hope this helps you enjoy “the great growling engine of change – technology” (Alvin Toffler)15.


 

Leticia Hosang, BSc


Leticia is a sports science, sports psychology and neuroscience researcher, previously working with Brunel London University and exploring the effects of exercise on brain activity.


 

References


  1. Kamiya, J. (1979). Autoregulation of the EEG alpha rhythm: A program for the study of consciousness. In Mind/body integration: Essential readings in biofeedback (pp. 289-297). Boston, MA: Springer US. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4613-2898-8_25 

  2. Sterman, M. B. (2010). Biofeedback in the treatment of epilepsy. Cleve Clin J Med77(3), S60-7. https://www.ccjm.org/content/77/7_suppl_3/S60.long 

  3. Fairchild, M. D., & Sterman, M. B. (1965). 1, 1-dimethylhydrazine effects on central excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms in cats. Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5294721/  

  4. Goff, W. R., Allison, T., Matsumiya, Y., Sterman, M. B., & Fairchild, M. D. (1967). Effects of 1, 1-dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) on evoked cerebral neuroelectric responses. AMRL-TR-67-67. AMRL-TR. Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories, 1-10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5302471/ 

  5. Fotuhi, M. (2019). Neurofeedback: Your Complete Guide to What It Is and How It Works. Retrieved from: https://neurogrow.com/neurofeedback-complete-guide/ 

  6. CONKA Instagram reel: The effects of exercise on EEG-recorded brain activity. https://www.instagram.com/reel/C0uMavro3DB/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA== 

  7. Sahler, C. S., & Greenwald, B. D. (2012). Traumatic brain injury in sports: a review. Rehabilitation research and practice2012https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3400421/ 

  8. Chen, P. Y., Su, I. C., Shih, C. Y., Liu, Y. C., Su, Y. K., Wei, L., ... & Chiu, H. Y. (2023). Effects of Neurofeedback on Cognitive Function, Productive Activity, and Quality of Life in Patients With Traumatic Brain Injury: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 15459683231170539. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37125901/ 

  9. Eschmann, K. C., Riedel, L., & Mecklinger, A. (2022). Theta neurofeedback training supports motor performance and flow experience. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 1-17.

  10. Hosang, L. (2024). The state of flow: Part l. Retrieved from: https://www.conka.uk/post/the-state-of-flow-part-l 

  11. Jirayucharoensak, S., Israsena, P., Pan-Ngum, S., Hemrungrojn, S., & Maes, M. (2019). A game-based neurofeedback training system to enhance cognitive performance in healthy elderly subjects and in patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment. Clinical interventions in aging, 347-360. 

  12. Riaño-Garzón, M. E., & Díaz-Camargo, E. A. (2018). Neurofeedback training to increase of cognitive skills in patient with traumatic brain injury (TBI). Journal of Neurology & Stroke8(1), 4-8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323878040_Neurofeedback_Training_to_Increase_of_Cognitive_Skills_in_Patient_with_Traumatic_Brain_Injury_TBI

  13. Domingos, C., Silva, C. M. D., Antunes, A., Prazeres, P., Esteves, I., & Rosa, A. C. (2021). The influence of an alpha band neurofeedback training in heart rate variability in athletes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health18(23), 12579.

  14. Reijnierse, A. (2024) The Best Neurofeedback Devices This Year: Reviewing The Top 5. Retrieved from: https://paleostressmanagement.com/the-best-neurofeedback-devices/

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