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How to Harness the Brain’s Own Power to Treat Depression

Neurofeedback holds promise for mild to moderate cases.

digital generated image of split netturbulence structure of artificial intelligence brain on purple surface
Andriy Onufriyenko

We’ve all seen color-coded GPS traffic maps: A bright red road means traffic is bumper- to-bumper, while blue indicates a quick drive. Now, a therapy called quantitative electroencephalography-based neurofeedback (mercifully shortened to QEEG-based neurofeedback) brings similar mapping to the heavily trafficked human brain. Though it’s relatively unknown, I believe it’s a safe, promising therapy for some mental problems, such as mild to moderate depression. I hope this Q&A highlights a potentially helpful new treatment.

What is QEEG-based neurofeedback therapy like?

It turns out we have far greater ability to control our nervous systems than most people realize. I’ve long prescribed a simpler technique called biofeedback, in which sensors on, say, the lower back provide feedback such as an audio tone. Patients can learn to lower the pitch of the tone by relaxing chronically tense muscles, easing their pain. Researchers have identified normal brain wave patterns and found that in mental disorders, brain waves may deviate from those norms. In a typical session of QEEG-based neurofeedback for depression, a patient wears a sensor-studded cap, looks at a screen, and attempts to change the image (and sometimes a tone) to make brain activity match more normal patterns. Treatment length varies, but a clinic might recommend anywhere from five to twenty 35-minute sessions.

How does the technology work?

It’s based on the century-old science of electroencephalography, which uses sensors to pick up subtle electrical brain activity. In earlier years, analog “squiggles” were tracked on moving paper, but now it’s digital. Up to 21 sensors can be embedded in the cap to read brain electrical patterns, which are then mathematically combined to create color-coded “maps” of cerebral activity.

How is QEEG-based neurofeedback used in real life?

Evidence suggests that clinicians can diagnose brain disorders by comparing a patient’s readings with a database of other scans. Combined with neurofeedback, the technology goes from diagnostic to therapeutic. For instance, one review of 30 studies found a “small to medium” effect in mitigating ADHD, a “large superior” effect in addressing autism spectrum disorder, and a “large” positive effect against depression.

Are there any risks?

In my view, if you’ve struggled with depression, there’s little harm and great potential for improvement with QEEG-based neurofeedback. Particularly for mild to moderate depression, it’s often a better first approach than potentially hazardous and less effective drugs.

How can you find a provider?

First, talk about treatment options with your primary care physician or mental health provider. If you decide to try QEEG-based neurofeedback, look for a clinic certified by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance.

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