Neurofeedback, commonly known as brain-training, is a technique that can help children to change their own brain patterns and thought processes using computerized brain sensors and sophisticated videogame-like software. It was pioneered in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, shortly after the development of modern EEG machines. In recent years, brain-training research has seen a renewed enthusiasm because of advanced technologies in computer-learning and by new insight into how the brain works gained by functional MRI technology.

Brain-training therapists and researchers state that by changing brain patterns and processes, children can teach their brains to work in new ways that can help to alleviate symptoms of a wide variety of neurocognitive conditions.

Brain-training works because the human brain is neuro-plastic. This means that when one part of the brain is damaged, the brain can re-organize and re-wire itself in order to regain lost function (at least to a certain degree). This is because the brain is a dynamic and flexible system of interconnected neural cells (neurons).

Although the brain does not (at least on a large scale) create new neurons in response to injury, remaining undamaged neurons can create new neural connections. New neural axons, the connective “wires” of the brain, can be grown from undamaged neurons to reach different neurons. For example, a person who has lost the ability to speak due to a brain injury can sometimes relearn to speak by using different areas of the brain, in effect rewiring the brain.

One way to rewire the brain is through new experiences. These experiences can include brain-training. Through repetition and reward, the brain is encouraged to grow and strengthen new neural connections to retrain the brain. Brain-training has been known to help children as young as five unlearn unhelpful or abnormal brain patterns while teaching and reinforcing normal or desirable ones.

Brain-training is often used as a complementary treatment and is usually combined with other medical therapies for severe impairments. However, for some more milder conditions, it may be used as the sole treatment of choice. As brain-training focuses on symptoms of a condition, it’s aim is not to cure, but rather to improve function.

Brain-training therapy is fairly straightforward: After a baseline assessment, brain-training sessions last from 10 minutes to half hour with 2 or more sessions per week. After 20 sessions, a reassessment is made with further recommendations for treatment made. Depending on the condition, brain-training may need to be ongoing, may require occasional “tune-ups," or may be considered complete after the initial therapy sessions.

Brain-training treatment is sometimes, but not always, covered by insurance companies. And although the technology for brain-training is becoming more affordable, and wearable devices for adults are now within consumer reach, treatment for children should be made by certified professionals who specialize in pediatric conditions. Specialists providing care come from a range of disciplines: physicians, psychologists, physical therapists, and nurses are the most common providers.

Brain-training equipment utilizes common EEG sensors which are non-invasive and painless. Most children find the experience non-threatening and enjoyable. EEG sensors are diagnostic sensors used to diagnose epilepsy and other brain conditions. However, neurofeedback therapy expands EEG’s use for real-time output to help patients alter their own brain activity towards more beneficial thought processes and pathways. 

Brainwaves in different parts of the brain indicate different states of mind and activities:

  • Alpha waves indicate an awake, but relaxed state.
  • Beta waves indicate an awake, mentally focused, and active state.
  • Gamma waves indicate that a person is extremely focused, using a great deal of energy, or is experiencing euphoria.
  • Theta waves indicate a daydreaming or dreamy state. They can also occur during meditation.
  • Delta waves are associated with deep sleep. 
  • During brain-training sessions, EEG sensors provide real-time feedback on brainwave activity during interactive video games that continually train and reward targeted neural activity. In effect, children learn to play and win the video game by using their mind. By using this simple reward-feedback mechanism, therapists can help a child coax their own brain’s thought patterns to achieve calmer, more focused neural activity, improve cognition, increase social interaction and normalize mood. Once the child learns to recognize their own brain patterns, they can then self-regulate on their own to reduce symptoms or achieve mentally challenging tasks.

    The majority of quantitative scientific research on brain-training therapy for children has focused on children with ADHD. In study after study, brain-training has shown to be effective, with long-term benefits as long as 3 to 6 months. Promising research exists showing that it is also beneficial for autism spectrum disorder, brain injury, epilepsy, developmental delays, and other neurocognitive conditions and syndromes.

    Examples of Brain-training Therapy for Various Conditions:

  • Children with ADHD have problems concentrating, remaining focused and on-task. They typically have a neural activity that is dominated by alpha waves, which indicate excessive hyperactivity, or theta waves, indicating daydreaming. A more calm and focused brain pattern is beta waves. By using interactive video games, therapists can measure when a child achieves brainwave patterns that are associated with sharpened attention and reduced impulsivity. Over several training sessions, children can learn how to control their own brainwave pattern in response to real-time EEG-detected brainwaves. This leads to the activation and strengthening of new neural connections. Scientific studies of children with ADHD using neurofeedback therapy have shown decreased impulsiveness, fewer mood swings, better concentration, and improved sleep patterns with few side-effects.
  • Some studies have found that children with drug-resistant epilepsy were able to reduce their number of seizures by up to 70% (as a complementary treatment alongside anti-convulsant medications). Since seizures typically have a highly focal origin in a small region of the brain, training concentrates on normalizing abnormal electrical activity in that region. However, affordable wearable technologies will be needed before this treatment can be seen as a long-term therapy.
  • Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties with interpreting and responding to social stimulation, emotional experience, and environmental signals. Neurofeedback for ASD focuses on improving social interactions and reducing hyperactivity of brainwaves. Case studies report increased responsiveness, social interactions, and calmness after therapy.
  • In children with brain injuries, brain-training generally focuses upon repairing memory function, improving attention, decreasing depression, and problem-solving. There is anecdotal evidence that not only do these specific skills improve, but that academic achievement and overall cognitive function improve with treatment. Evidence also points to how both fine and gross motor skills may be aided through this therapy, as it may be able to "teach" the brain to use alternative pathways to make up for damaged areas with abnormal function.
  • In summary, brain-training is a safe, effective, and non-drug-dependent therapy that has a wide variety of potential benefits for children with neurocognitive conditions.