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How Was Neurofeedback Developed?

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

In 1964, Dr. Marian Diamond was a pioneering scientist and educator who is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She was the first to publish evidence that the brain can change with experience and improve given the right circumstances, what is now called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. By definition, neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in the environment. These changes to the environment can be enriching or detrimental. Nurture versus nature is a good example of how brains can develop differently depending on the environment an individual is exposed to.

So, we now know that the brain can change over time, even well into adulthood, for better or worse. Right around the same time Dr. Diamond was researching brain plasticity, Dr. Barry Sterman was doing research on sleep and was observing cat’s brains with an EEG. During his studies, which involved Pavlov-like experiments, he noticed the mental state of the cats and discovered that when these cats were in a relatively calm state, they produced a brain wave he identified as sensory motor rhythm (SMR). He went on to train these cats to produce these brain waves on demand and they eventually produced them of their own accord.

At that same time in history, NASA was having trouble sending astronauts into space because some of them were experiencing seizures do to a fuel they were exposed to. They were aware of Dr. Sterman’s research and asked him to join their team in helping them research the seizures and what could be done about them. Dr. Sterman, using the cats he was already experimenting with exposed them to the same fuel. He noticed that the cats he had previously trained to increase the SMR rhythm (the relaxing brainwave rhythm), had a much higher tolerance to developing seizures than the ones who had not been trained to increase SMR brainwaves. Accidently, he discovered brains that were trained using the EEG and operant conditioning (punishment versus reward) were much more resistant to developing seizures. This was the beginning of what we now call neurofeedback training. It originated with seizure control and went on to become an effective way of stabilizing the brain in such a way that conditions like depression, anxiety and ADHD were studied and protocols were successfully developed to target these instabilities in the brain.

If you'd like to learn more about how neurofeedback works, here's a link to a presentation of neurofeedback therapy.

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