Neuroplasticity and Neurofeedback: How Do They Relate?

The momentum behind today’s brain science and research is unparalleled in our history. So much so, that even just as recently as two decades ago the brain was still scientifically regarded as a fixed system. This means that scientists and practitioners collectively believed that the number of neurons present in our brains at birth was a set number we were born with, and changes to those numbers only occurred as the breakdown of the aging process began. These numbers were only spontaneously offset by occurrences such as genetic or infectious disease, toxins, injury and mechanical damage.

Today, however, science and research understand that this could not be further from the truth. Our cerebral tissue and the cells that comprise it undergo constant second-to-second change throughout our entire lives; changes brought about by anything from developmental to experiential forces. We’ve come to realize that actually, the very essence of what makes our brains so extraordinary is its flexible, malleable nature. In short, its neuroplastic properties.

We’ve come to realize that actually, the very essence of what makes our brains so extraordinary is its flexible, malleable nature.

How Does Neuroplasticity Relate to Neurofeedback?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to alter its connections, organization, and function based on the experiences and behaviors we engage in on a daily basis. It equips the brain with resilient and adaptive strength and makes learning and growing possible. Feats ranging from learning a new sport or language to rehabilitation and healing all rely on the cellular mechanisms of neuroplasticity.

As we continue to move forward in the fields of science and health care, the next question to ask is, “How can we utilize neuroplasticity in the development of more effective treatment?” For this, we turn to the field of neurofeedback.

In the pursuit to improve ourselves and our biology, no modern advancement in the field of mental health has seen such drastic and rapid transformations as neurofeedback. Grounded in the behavioral psychology field of learning theory, neurofeedback employs operant conditioning and utilizes various reward stimuli in order to guide the brain towards clinically specified activity patterns. Over time, the brain physically rearranges itself and its activity to accommodate the rewarded brain activity, ultimately alleviating maladaptive psychological and behavioral patterns in the individual.

From a neurofeedback perspective, neuroplasticity is the glue that holds everything together. It is the cellular-level technology that allows long-term changes within the nervous system to occur. Infraslow fluctuation training (ISF) is an especially effective form of neurofeedback because it is an immediate state-altering intervention. During a session, clients are moved from an uncomfortable affective state to a more focused and relaxed state in real time – an outcome made possible due to the behavioral impact of the infraslow frequencies within the human cerebral cortex.

During a session, clients are moved from an uncomfortable affective state to a more focused and relaxed state in real time – an outcome made possible due to the behavioral impact of the infraslow frequencies within the human cerebral cortex.

In plain terms, infraslow rhythms are an integral part of the organizing nexus of the biological systems that determine our levels of arousal and excitement, as well as anxiety and fear. This system is called the Autonomic Nervous System (“ANS” for short). The ability to train the slow frequencies of these systems via ISF and promote specific neuroplastic changes within the cellular networks that produce them has proven very useful, particularly in individuals  with a dysregulated ANS.

The Plasticity Paradox

Unfortunately, our biology does not differentiate between the circuits we strengthen and the behaviors they correspond with. Because of this, plasticity in the brain can also lead to maladaptive behavior and self-defeating thought patterns – a human experience we all know too well. This phenomenon has been dubbed “the plasticity paradox” by psychiatrist Norman Doige, MD [1].  In neurofeedback, operant conditioning helps target the fear response in individuals with PTSD, RAD, anxiety and depression, and this is especially useful for those who cannot or will not use medication.

Plasticity in the brain can also lead to maladaptive behavior and self-defeating thought patterns – a human experience we all know too well.

Recent research has defined the infraslow frequencies as the “superstructure” of the brain that regulates both the integration within and decoupling between concurrently active neuronal networks [2]. Accordingly, we use ISF neurofeedback to calm the reactivity of the ANS so that traumatized clients are less vulnerable to triggers in the future. This limbic calming results in smoother processing within associated behavioral networks. We are also able to help clients who are Dysautonomic or Alexithymic to become more aware of their emotions through the neuroplastic reintegration of limbic and sensory networks in cortex. Neurofeedback clients learn to articulate their emotions better by focusing on the subtle changes in their bodies during each session.  

Do Results of Neurofeedback Training Last Long-Term?

A common question that many people ask is, “Do the changes brought about from training with neurofeedback last long-term?” Follow-up research involving many different modalities of neurofeedback show us that, in fact, they do. While the specific changes experienced by the patient will vary from person to person given their unique brain and its functional organization, changes brought about by consistent neurofeedback training generally do last over the long run. The reason these changes persist 6 months, 12 months, and years down the road is because the changes we experience are not stand-alone results. These shifts in behavior are a result of individual shifts in neurons, the way in which they function, and the overall networks they are a part of. By repeatedly engaging the brain in new ways, the cellular networks in the brain will begin to adjust physically and functionally in order to accommodate the new levels of activity.

It is important to note, however, that the key word in this equation is consistent. Just as one cannot expect to gain muscle mass by skipping days at the gym, neurofeedback and the neuroplasticity that it relies upon can only truly take hold through consistent weekly training. As long as any neurofeedback training is given sufficient time, whether it be infraslow fluctuation training, z-score training, or even optimal performance training, the physical brain will adjust. To learn more, read our recent blog post entitled What Is Neuroplasticity.

 


[1] https://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1639

[2] Palva, S., & Palva, J. M. (2012). Discovering oscillatory interaction networks with M/EEG: challenges and breakthroughs. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(4), 219-230.

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