Neurofeedback Therapy: How Does Neurofeedback Work For Drug Addiction?

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Neurofeedback (NF) is a medical therapy that helps people with addiction problems to gain control over spontaneous brain activity. It is a subdivision of biofeedback therapies where information about blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature allows people to regain control, manage stress, and practice relaxation. Neurofeedback therapy is a type of operant conditioning which is critical to overcoming addiction by harnessing the power of the mind.

Neurofeedback Therapy Overview

Neurofeedback therapy works as a course of exercises for the brain. It is a drug-free, noninvasive training program that helps recovering addicts lead a more balanced, healthy life. It aids substance abuse recovery and helps prevent relapse, manage stress and complicated emotional states by shifting the way the human brain responds to stressful situations.
If one wonders, what neurofeedback is, simply put, it is a kind of biofeedback for the brain, which is is often called brain wave therapy. The major principle of EEG neurofeedback is to gain control over involuntary processes through conditioning. During neurofeedback sessions, brain waves are mapped through EEG (electroencephalography). The information gained from EEG Neurofeedback is used to assess specific areas of the brain and identify any misalignment or dysregulation.
 doctor studying the sections of the brain
Neurofeedback sessions train the brain to function more efficiently. Recovering addicts actively participate in learning to track changes in brain activity. This information allows them to make subtle alterations in their response to situations that are typically triggered for substance abuse. The ability to manage emotional stress is critical for addiction recovery because stress is frequently a powerful trigger for addicts. Neurofeedback therapy allows recovering addicts to regulate the functioning of their brains and gain control over their recovery.

EEG Neurofeedback Principles

Brain waves therapy is based on scientific findings on human brain functioning. It was found that different parts of the human brain are active during different activities. Frequency bands called alpha, beta, delta, and theta become activated as a person goes about their daily activities. When someone is balancing their checkbook, the beta frequency may be active. When someone is relaxing and winding down after work, alpha waves may predominate.
 woman undergoing eeg neurofeedback
Neurofeedback therapy improves the ability of the brain to shift smoothly between the states of arousal and relaxation. The techniques identify the specific pathways that are over- or under-activated, misaligned, or dysregulated. Following this assessment, a variety of equipment is available to address the client’s particular needs. NF training encourages healthy brain function. It also addresses dysregulations in brain activity that produce symptoms, such as anxiety, migraines, sleep disorders, which often accompany addictive behaviors.

What Happens During Neurofeedback Session?

During Neurofeedback therapy, mental health professionals, therapists, and psychologists work with clients in one-on-one training sessions. Neurofeedback device sensors are placed on the patient’s head to monitor brainwave activity. EEG machine records electrical activity in the brain, detects normal and abnormal brain function, and provides real-time feedback via images or sounds.

People with substance abuse issues learn and reinforce new capabilities. In other words, healthy frequencies are promoted, and unhealthy ones are diminished. Eventually, this shapes the brain towards more regulated, aligned activity. This helps gain control over what is usually an involuntary function.

Neurofeedback Techniques: Training the Brain to Function Better

There are many different neurofeedback techniques, and some of the most popular are:

CES machine

These FDA-regulated devices have been on the market since the 1950s and are proven to be effective and safe. CES machine is used as a drug-free, portable, cost-effective therapy that is non-addictive and appropriate for people of all ages. The device provides gentle electrical stimulation to specific areas of the brain that have abnormal functioning.

Deep Brain Neurofeedback

Deep brain neurofeedback (LoRETA) is the most advanced tool used by trained therapists. It addresses specific goals and produces results in fewer sessions. QEEG brain mapping allows the training program to be tailored to the addict’s brain activity and symptoms. Comparisons are made to previous QEEGs to assess progress. A comparison can also be made to a baseline Z-score to evaluate how much training is required.

Real-Time Feedback With Functional MRI

Real-time feedback with functional MRI (fMRI) is useful in treating addiction, depression, chronic pain, and schizophrenia. The treatment targets specific areas of the brain compared to pharmacotherapy, which is more like taking a shot in the dark.

Neurofeedback Computer Games

Neurofeedback Computer Games
Teenagers with addiction problems may be asked to play a computerized video game on EEG plus tablet during NF sessions. The game only proceeds to the next stage when the adolescent is focused and calm. If the EEG machine detects distracted brainwave patterns, the game stops. This method of reward conditions the brain to function with healthy brain activity patterns.

Conditions Treated by Neurofeedback Therapy

A number of neurofeedback training protocols have been developed to help specific problems, such as:

  • ADD
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbance or insomnia
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Bipolar disorder
  • PTSD
  • Seizures
  • Migraine
  • Spectrum disorder
  • OCD
  • Tinnitus
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcoholism and drug addiction

Neurofeedback therapy focuses on brain activity and attempts to regulate brain function. These abnormal brainwave patterns produce symptoms such as anxiety and depression, which can trigger a relapse in recovering addicts. Training helps restore healthy the activity and is an essential adjunctive therapy in substance abuse recovery.

Neurofeedback Therapy Cost

A standard course of neurofeedback treatment can cost about $1500. A single session can cost a patient $100 and up. On the long-range, neurofeedback sessions enhance the brain’s capacity to function well, but some conditions can be prohibitive in terms of cost. In such situations, it is possible to undergo supervised home sessions after a series of in-office training sessions. This allows the patient to receive frequent, consistent therapy that is affordable and convenient.

Doctor calculating Neurofeedback Therapy Cost

Neurofeedback Effectiveness For Substance Abuse Treatment

Brain wave therapy is a popular and widely available therapy that should be included in treatment plans for substance abuse in the United States. With the use of electroencephalography (EEG) to track brainwave patterns, addict’s response to various actions are measured. Neurofeedback therapist then trains the recovering addict to self-regulate and to obtain control over the autonomic nervous system.
Over a few decades of experience with neurofeedback success rate shows good results for addiction treatment. Neurofeedback therapy works for most people battling substance abuse problems because the human mind is designed to learn and acquire new skills. Yet, it is important to have realistic expectations and not be discouraged by slow progress.
For most recovering addicts, the outcome of brain wave therapy techniques exceeds their expectations. In fact, for people with low expectations, to begin with, the results can feel almost miraculous. The changes brought about by EEG neurofeedback are, in fact, not miraculous but simply a harnessing of the incredible power of the human brain to adapt and recover function

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Published on: April 23rd, 2018

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.


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