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FOR 20 YEARS, PSYCHOLOGIST SARA HUNT HARPER has taught clients biofeedback techniques to alter blood pressure, temperature and other involuntary body functions.

But she was skeptical about brain wave biofeedback, which uses an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to teach clients control of brain activity. Harper, past president of the Biofeedback Society of Texas, did not believe this biofeedback, known as neurotherapy, could be used in psychology.

“I bad-mouthed it locally, statewide and nationally,” she says.

In 1996, however, one of her patients went to the Neurotherapy Lab in UNT’s Department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addictions for treatment. After seeing positive results in the patient, Harper tried neurotherapy in 1997 to treat her own depression. She felt better after a few sessions.

Harper has since learned EEG biofeedback from UNT for her practice. She is one of the Neurotherapy Lab’s biggest cheerleaders.

“It is a gift for the students it trains, the clients it serves and professionals wishing to learn EEG biofeedback,” she says.

UNT’s Neurotherapy Lab is the only university laboratory of its type in the United States, according to Eugenia Bodenhamer-Davis, lab director and associate professor of rehabilitation, social work and addictions.


Bodenhamer-Davis says the brain’s neurochemical activity generates electrical charges from billions of cells. These charges are classified into alpha, theta, beta and delta brain waves. Alpha waves are produced during alert relaxation, while theta waves are associated with deep meditative states. Beta waves are produced during task concentration and problem solving. Delta waves are present during sleep.

Past research has shown that people with mental and physical disorders often exhibit high or low levels of certain brain waves, Bodenhamer-Davis says.

“People with serious closed-head injuries usually have too many theta waves, causing concentration and memory problems. They need training to wake up the brain,” she says.

In contrast, many people who abuse alcohol have too many beta waves, she says.

“They are self-medicating with a depressant — alcohol — to slow down their brains and central nervous systems,” she says.


Brain aerobics

Before a session in UNT’s Neurotherapy Lab, a doctoral student uses a quantitative EEG to map a client’s alpha, theta, beta and delta levels. The student determines thresholds or goals for increasing or decreasing levels of certain waves.

At the beginning of the 50-minute session, the client sits in a reclining chair. Sensors attached to the fingers measure body temperature and sweat gland activity, which change with relaxation. Sensors attached to the scalp measure electrical activity.

Once the client is relaxed, the therapist reads aloud a visualization script.

“If the goal of neurotherapy is to decrease anxiety, the script may say, ‘I will not feel anxious about everything I need to do,’” says Paul Nelson, UNT doctoral student in health psychology and behavioral medicine.

The client views the brain activity on a computer screen during the session. A tone or visual image indicates a goal has been achieved.

“We have computer programs that give points or have balls that change color each time you reach the threshold,” Nelson says. “We also have a spaceship program like a video game, which we use with children.”

After the session, the person determines what he or she did physically to reach a threshold. Some clients do breathing exercises, while others visualize images, Bodenhamer-Davis says.

“It’s really an aerobic exercise for the brain,” she says. “Clients depend on the external feedback until they recognize how they feel physically when they have too much or too little of a certain brain wave. Then they recall what they did during therapy to lower or increase the levels.”


A new partner in treatment

UNT’s Neurotherapy Lab opened in 1992 after Bodenhamer-Davis received a $109,912 grant from the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

The commission chose three Texas sites to replicate neurotherapy treatment for alcoholics that was conducted during the late 1980s at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Fort Lynn, Colo. UNT was the only university chosen.

Twenty-one individuals who abused alcohol or other substances were selected for UNT’s study. Each completed at least 30 sessions to increase alpha and theta levels. They also learned to visualize rejection of alcohol or drugs.

Bodenhamer-Davis contacted 16 of these individuals after they had been out of treatment for at least one year. Seventy-seven percent had abstained from using alcohol or drugs or had significantly changed their drinking habits so that they were no longer dysfunctional.

Since that first study, the Neurotherapy Lab has treated 300 to 400 people not only for alcohol abuse, but also for other conditions.

Another study involved 12 people with closed-head injuries who suffered from depression, low energy, and memory and concentration disturbances.

Most of the clients completed 26 to 40 sessions to learn how to increase their beta brain-wave levels. All reported improvements in memory, concentration and mood. In some cases, results were dramatic.

Robert Lawson, a doctoral student in health psychology and behavioral medicine, recalls a client who had suffered two closed-head injuries. She cried frequently, could not do simple household chores and could not read for more than a few minutes before developing a severe headache, he says.

“After several sessions, she said she read a (William) Faulkner novel over the weekend,” he says. “That was wonderful to hear.”

The Neurotherapy Lab also treats adults and children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, teaching them to increase beta waves for better concentration.

“One child’s teacher had told his family to put him on medication,” Lawson says. “After a few weeks of sessions, the kid calmed down so much that the teacher thanked the family, thinking they had put him on medication.”

Bodenhamer-Davis says neurotherapy has proven to have about an 80 percent success rate in treating ADHD, closed-head injuries, alcohol and drug abuse, and depression. But it is not a cure for every disorder, she says.

“It will never replace counseling,” she says.

Instead, EEG biofeedback increasingly will be combined with other biofeedback methods and counseling, Harper says.

“Ultimately, it will change the face of mental illness treatment,” she says.


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