Plasticity through feedback

Most people know that the best and fastest way to learn something is to have excellent and instant feedback. In fact it is almost impossible, maybe always impossible, to learn something without any feedback. In general, we cannot control anything that does not provide feedback and we are much better at learning to control something if the feedback reaches consciousness.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario (citation below) have used alpha wave feedback at enable changes in the brain and behavior.

our results indicate that at around 30 min after training, NFB (neurofeedback) induced a statistically significant up-regulation of functional connectivity within the dACC/MCC (dorsal anterior cingulate/mid-cingulate cortex) of the salience network in the experimental but not in the SHAM group. Hence utilizing fMRI and a placebo-control group we extend the findings of Ros et al. (2010) demonstrating that the adult cortex is sufficiently plastic that a mere half-hour of targeted volitional activity (i.e. NFB) is capable of intrinsically reconfiguring the brain’s functional activity to last above and beyond – and at least as long as – the time period of training itself.

This results in reductions in mind-wandering and increases in attention to a task – much as meditation does. There is a hope that this technique can be used to help some medical conditions that seem to be associated with abnormal alpha waves.

Here is the abstract:

Neurofeedback (NFB) involves a brain–computer interface that allows users to learn to voluntarily control their cortical oscillations, reflected in the electroencephalogram (EEG). Although NFB is being pioneered as a noninvasive tool for treating brain disorders, there is insufficient evidence on the mechanism of its impact on brain function. Furthermore, the dominant rhythm of the human brain is the alpha oscillation (8–12 Hz), yet its behavioral significance remains multifaceted and largely correlative. In this study with 34 healthy participants, we examined whether during the performance of an attentional task, the functional connectivity of distinct fMRI networks would be plastically altered after a 30-min session of voluntary reduction of alpha rhythm (n = 17) versus a sham-feedback condition (n = 17). We reveal that compared to sham-feedback, NFB induced an increase of connectivity within the salience network (dorsal anterior cingulate focus), which was detectable 30 min after termination of training. This increase in connectivity was negatively correlated with changes in ‘on-task’ mind-wandering as well as resting state alpha rhythm. Crucially, there was a causal dependence between alpha rhythm modulations during NFB and at subsequent resting state, not exhibited by the SHAM group. Our findings provide neurobehavioral evidence for a temporally direct, plastic impact of NFB on a key cognitive control network of the brain, suggesting a promising basis for its use to treat cognitive disorders under physiological conditions.

Ros, T., Théberge, J., Frewen, P., Kluetsch, R., Densmore, M., Calhoun, V., & Lanius, R. (2012). Mind over chatter: Plastic up-regulation of the fMRI salience network directly after EEG neurofeedback NeuroImage DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.09.046

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