Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental illness that impacts 6.8 percent of the American population. Although many people believe that PTSD is only associated with wartime trauma, individuals can also develop the disorder due to childhood abuse or neglect, sexual assault, natural disasters or serious accidents. People with this disorder chronically relive the traumatic experience that triggered the illness, experiencing extreme amounts of anxiety, hypervigilance, detachment and hopelessness.
As with all mental illnesses, PTSD doesn’t just change a person’s behavior — it also changes a person’s brain. Neurotransmitters ebb and flow, new neural connections form,and brain areas grow or shrink, all culminating in powerful symptoms that can severely reduce a person’s quality of life.
Neurofeedback as a tool to treat PTSD
Neurofeedback is a new form of therapy designed to adjust the brain waves of individuals struggling with mental illness or traumatic brain injury.
In a typical neurofeedback session, patients sit down in front of a computer or television screen with electrodes connected to their scalp. Patients then perform various training exercises while a clinician monitors their brain waves in real time. Once the session is complete, the patients can read the notes the clinicians made about their brain waves and learn how to alter their brain activity in the next session. Each training session lasts between 45 and 60 minutes.
Neurofeedback is noninvasive, drug free and completely painless. It also results in zero side effects.
The question is: Does it work?
Research is encouraging
In 2013, a research team led by Rosemarie Kluetsch, M.Sc., chose to investigate whether a single session of neurofeedback could change brain activity in individuals suffering from PTSD. They also wanted to know whether this change in brain activity could help mitigate symptoms.
In this study, the researchers examined 21 patients with PTSD. These patients performed a 30-minute neurofeedback training session during which researchers taught the patients how to reduce the amplitude of a specific kind of brain wave — the alpha rhythm (8-12 hertz). Although alpha rhythm reduction has been successfully achieved in healthy volunteers, no studies have indicated that similar interventions are possible for individuals with PTSD.
After the training session was complete, the researchers measured whether or not the patients had successfully reduced their alpha rhythms. They also measured whether this reduction impacted their anxiety levels. Finally, the researchers used functional imaging to measure the connectivity between various brain regions, or networks.
The results were very encouraging. Not only were patients able to decrease their alpha amplitude during the training session, but that suppression then resulted in a rebound, or enhanced alpha wave synchronization. This resurgence in alpha activity was linked to an increase in calmness as well as enhanced connectivity in the salience network, a series of brain regions involved in attention and the default mode network, a series of brain regions known to be engaged in thinking and introspection.
In summary, neurofeedback didn’t just reduce the anxiety associated with PTSD — it also changed the way the brain processed information.
“This is the first study to show that key brain networks involved in mediating affect and cognition in PTSD can be volitionally modulated via neurofeedback, with measurable outcomes on subjective well-being,” explainedKluetsch and Tomas Ros, Ph.D., another scientist involved in the study.
Neurofeedback at Sovereign
The Sovereign Health Groupis one of the few mental health and addiction treatment providers to offer neurofeedback training. After all, our goal is to stay on the cutting-edge of psychiatric treatment and provide our patients with the best care possible. Neurofeedback is a promising new technique that might help patients who struggle with PTSD, addiction and numerous other mental illnesses.
“After 10 sessions, the results can typically be observed by the patient and others,” explains Dr. Meghan Marcum, the director of clinical excellence at the Sovereign Health Group. “Progress continues with even more sessions.”
She added that neurofeedback is far from the only way in which Sovereign focuses on the biology associated with mental illness.
“Cognitive rehabilitation and brain wellness groups are also part of the focus of healing the brain as a central focus of recovery,” she noted.
At Sovereign, we pay special attention to the complex interplay between mental illness, substance addiction and the brain. We offer not only therapy and medication management, but also cognitive rehabilitation and individualized neurofeedback. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer