Training the brain to heal itself

The brain speaks in an electrical language. Every single thought, emotion, memory or action is translated into tiny electrical pulses in the neural network. The synchronised sum of these signals is interpreted as waveforms, called Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

These range of brainwaves (0.5 to over 30 Hertz) impact every aspect of our functional state — physical, behavioural, emotional and cognitive. For example, Alpha band relates to the restive state of mind and involves the mind-body coordination, while Beta is active in the wakeful period involving cognitive functions; Theta waves are prominent in sleep and are the bed of intuition, memory and learning.

Extensive research in neuroscience has revealed that each of these bands has optimal values playing a vital role in the conscious, subconscious and superconscious states of the mind. So, whenever they go off-key, it reflects on our mind and body. Over-arousal of some of the waves in specific brain centres results in a corresponding anomaly.

Technology gave a boost to neuroscience in learning the wave patterns in detail with the help of the Electroencephalograph (EEG). This instrument uses sensors placed across the scalp, which can pick up and record the electrical activity of the brain. Coupled with a computer interface and quantifying analysis software, the wave patterns give a wealth of information to neurologists on the neurophysiological condition of an individual.

Positive feedback

Just as a musical tune is altered by the notes, science has found that feeding new data to the brain under the right circumstances induces a change in perception, which in turn leads to altering the brainwaves. In other words, the brain can discard unwanted routes and develop alternate pathways in response to external stimuli. This pruning — called neuroplasticity — is a feature which makes us learn new things at any age.  

Taking advantage of neuroplasticity and combining it with EEG, a therapeutic model called Neurofeedback Training (NFT) is available, through which, feedback is given to the brain about itself in real time. The brain responds to this biofeedback and gradually develops new routes of communication.

A typical NFT session lasts for about 30-40 minutes and employs live EEG analysis. The values are referenced and optimised from a database and customised to an individual’s condition. Audio instructions are given to the individuals to try to reach a state of the required optimal levels.

When the threshold is reached, reward flashes on the screen in the form of points or a visual —— much like in a video game. This encouragement prompts the individual to pursue the desired state further. At the end of the stipulated twenty, phased sessions, new neural pathways are generated which translate into neuro-physical changes visible as a change in abilities.

The therapy is gaining ground as an acknowledged scientific method to help the brain rewire itself. It is not uncommon to see sportspersons and astronauts undergoing NFT as a part of their training protocol.

However, the strength of NFT lies in its ability to rehabilitate people with neurological dysfunctions. One such facility at the Department of Clinical Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience Centre, NIMHANS, is employing NFT to a spectrum of patients to normalise their life to the best possible levels.

Help at hand

Although the brain resides in a bony enclosure, it is susceptible to injuries in the event of a fall, severe blow or accidents, leading to damaged grey and white matter in the brain. Termed as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), such incidents cause physical as well as psychological malfunctions. Rehabilitation of TBI patients is a socio-economic challenge.

Highlighting one of their research studies at the above facility at NIMHANS, Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran, head of the department, says, “NFT therapy has given excellent results in people with brain injuries by improving not only the behavioural and emotional states but cognitive as well.”

Dr Rajnish Kumar Gupta, a post-doctoral fellow at the facility, who is studying the electrophysiological outcomes of NFT in people with TBI, says: “In the case of TBI, the Alpha levels are low, and Theta is high in a particular region. We optimise thresholds for each case, depending on the severity of the injury, and gradually increase the time of each session. By the end of the duration, the results are significant.”

The post-therapy analysis and feedback from caregivers affirm that the change is a long term one, requiring minimal follow-ups. Being a non-invasive method, NFT is increasingly preferred in place of the clinical route, say the experts. With encouraging outcomes, it is possible that NFT may be paving a way to help the brain heal itself and function the way it wished to be.

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