Seeing How Your Brain Works in Real-time Helps to Improve It

May 16, 2013 | 00:25
Seeing How Your Brain Works in Real-time Helps to Improve It
Seeing How Your Brain Works in Real-time Helps to Improve It
Providing people suffering from contamination anxiety with a read-out of their neural activity enables them to change their brain circuits and, consequently, their behavior, Yale researchers have found.

In an experiment involving twenty volunteers with contamination anxiety, researchers from Yale University tested whether real-time neurofeedback can induce lasting changes in brain activity.

Contamination anxiety is related to hyperactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a region of the brain thought to be involved in mood control and decision making. Showing the volunteers the activity in their OFC in a line-graph helped them to control their brain patterns. After eight sessions spread out over several days the volunteers reported a greater control over their anxiety and scans of their brain showed a corresponding decrease in connectivity in the regions associated with emotions.

The idea underlying the experiment is that behavioral patterns correspond to particular activities in the brain. In the case of dysfunctional behavior a part brain of the brain’s network is faultily wired. Changing one’s behavior results in a reorganization of the brain’s circuits or, conversely, manipulating the circuits alters behavior. An example of the latter is deep brain stimulation, a clinical intervention whereby the anatomy of the brain is surgically adjusted to combat afflictions like chronic pain or Parkinson’s disease. With their study the Yale team hopes to find non-invasive techniques to modulate the brain’s networks.

For the experiment the volunteers were taught by a clinical psychologist how to manipulate their brain activity. They then were exposed to contamination-related images alternated with neutral images. Through real-time functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (rt-fMRI) they could observe the neural activity in their OFC. A blue arrow at the side of the screen indicated they should try to decrease the activity in the region while a red arrow signaled to increase it.

There have been previous studies wherein individuals successfully altered their brain functions through neurofeedback. However, the brain networks were only measured for alterations during or immediately after the sessions, leaving the question whether the therapy has a lasting effect. To get answers the Yale researchers did a follow-up several days after the last session from which they learned that the test subjects were better able to control their anxiety and that the rewiring of the circuitry persisted. A control group subjected to the same contamination stimuli but presented with sham neurofeedback did not show any significant changes in brain connectivity.

Michelle Hampson, assistant professor of diagnostic radiology and her co-authors recently published their findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
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