Brain Training for Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Conditions

Brain Training for Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Conditions
Brain Training for Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Conditions

Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2016, Andrea Petersen

Edited by Linda Brownback, M.A., Licensed Psychologist

A new treatment for psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety uses real-time scans to show patients how their brains go awry—and how to fix the dysfunction. The treatment is called neurofeedback.

There is an urgent need for new approaches for psychiatric disorders, particularly depression. Almost 17% of Americans will suffer from major depression during their lifetime, according to a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research.

Not everyone responds to current treatments like antidepressant medication and talk therapy. In one study of almost 3,000 patients, only about 1/3 of them achieved remission from their depression after up to 14 weeks on the drug citalopram (Celexa).


An fMRI scan from a participant in a study using neurofeedback for spider phobia. The study targeted activity in part of the insula, a brain region implicated in sustained anxiety. It is at the center of the white cross. Photo: Anna Zilverstand, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Neurofeedback aims to be more precise than current therapies. It directly targets the brain dysfunctions and emotional and cognitive processes that are understood to underlie psychiatric disorders. Doctors hope that treatments could also be personalized to address the issues in each individual’s brain.

Besides depression, neurofeedback is being studied in phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, traumatic brain injury and chronic pain, among other illnesses.

With neurofeedback, “there’s no need to take medication and no need to talk about your mother to a stranger,” says Kymberly Young, a postdoctoral associate at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla.

In neurofeedback, patients lie in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. In general, they are told to conjure memories or look at pictures while their brains are scanned. The activity of certain brain regions related to subjects’ illnesses is analyzed via computer. Patients see visual representations of their brain activity almost in real time—often presented in the form of a thermometer or colored bar.

Based on what their brains are doing, subjects are told to enhance or suppress that activity. Patients “need to train their brain like they train their muscles when they want to be fit,” says Anna Zilverstand, a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and lead author of a 2015 study using neurofeedback to treat women with a phobia of spiders….

Dr. Young led a study of 23 depressed patients published in 2014 in the journal Plos One. In it, those who received one session of active neurofeedback for their illness saw their scores on a measure of happiness increase significantly more than those in a control group.

The happiness scores in the active group jumped 20%; the control group went up just 2%. Depression scores and an anxiety measure also dropped after treatment. But depression also dropped among those in the control group, and the difference in the drop between the groups wasn’t statistically significant.

In results from a more recent study, Dr. Young says that after two sessions of neurofeedback, depression scores dropped 50%. In the control group, they dropped 10%. These results are not yet published, but were presented at the Society of Biological Psychiatry annual meeting in 2015.

Neurofeedback didn’t work for everyone: About 10% of depressed participants had normal amygdala activity at the beginning of the studies. Another 10% of participants couldn’t learn how to regulate the amygdala….


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