A Different Kind of Brain Training Game May Reduce PTSD Symptoms

The game employed in the Lawson Research study.

Brain training games promise big results from repeating simple tasks every day. Generally speaking, it’s not that easy: repeating a memory-boosting puzzle every day for months is very likely to improve your results on that memory-boosting puzzle, but research doesn’t show that it actually improves your memory, for example.

But with a recent study published in Cerebral Cortex, the Lawson Health Research Institute tried a different sort of brain training to help participants cope with PTSD: neurofeedback.

Neurofeedback is brain training in a more literal sense. Users are hooked up to an EEG recording machine so they can see their own brain waves in the form of an interactive game. By changing their own brain activity, they can better match the goal on the screen. It might seem a bit like telepathy, and it’s been used in some questionable non-clinical contexts, but studies show it to be effective in some cases.

In this case, the context was PTSD. A common PTSD symptom is hyperarousal — often described as a heightened state of anxiety, a chronic state of vigilance or an easily-triggered fight-or-flight reflex. Researchers believe that restoring a more balanced pattern of brain activity may be key to reducing hyperarousal, so the Lawson Research study explored whether neurofeedback might be effective.

For 30 minutes, participants sat down in front of a game with a simple goal: move a spaceship forward. Easy enough, but the only controls were in their heads. If they could reduce their alpha waves to a calmer alpha rhythm, the ship would move forward. If not, it wouldn’t budge.

“Patients reported reducing the dominant brain wave by concentrating their attention towards the visuals on screen. This seemed to propel the spaceship forward,” said Dr. Ruth Lanius, a scientist at Lawson and a psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre. “This is consistent with prior research that suggests the alpha rhythm is reduced with increased processing of attention.”

That’s not a huge surprise — as the study points out, prior research tells us that increased processing of attention can reduce a patient’s alpha rhythm. What stood out for researchers is that the results lasted, maintaining healthier levels beyond the bounds of the game. Following the sessions, patients did in fact report decreases in hyperarousal.

“This is very significant. Neurofeedback may give patients the power to restore their patterns of brain activity and improve symptoms of psychiatric illness,” said Dr. Lanius. “This means that existing mechanisms of the human brain may be harnessed for therapy, providing an alternative to pharmaceutical and brain stimulation therapies.”

This doesn’t mean an EEG-based treatment is just around the corner, of course. A follow-up study is going to look into whether the results can be sustained in the long term. It’s a promising start, though — and all on the back of one remarkably simple video game.

[Neurofeedback Tunes Scale-Free Dynamics in Spontaneous Brain Activity]

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