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Research Findings

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The researchers' treatment protocol includes 6-8 weeks of thermal biofeedback and autogenic training, followed by 30 sessions of evoked images of personal change and alpha-theta EEG biofeedback. The sessions are performed twice a day, five days a week.

The results of the therapy have been nothing short of remarkable--80 percent short-term effectiveness, with ongoing studies tracking the long-term results. The training resulted not only in decreases in alcoholic behavior (relapse, cravings, etc.) but changes in a wide range of dysfunctional personality factors (Peniston & Kulkosky, 1990). The training even affected blood chemistry: serum Beta-endorphin levels increased in patients who completed alpha-theta brain wave training (Peniston & Kulkosky, 1989).

What accounts for these changes? The current theories behind alpha-theta brainwave training are documented in an excellent article by Jonathan D. Cowan, Ph.D. in the Megabrain Report: The Journal of Mind Technology (Vol. 2, No. 3). Cowan suggests that the power of the imagery instructions given prior to the EEG training, in which patients rehearse new intentions and positive alternatives, should not be underestimated. "These images of personal change are experienced in a relaxed state, followed closely by the effect induced by alpha-theta biofeedback, which is usually very pleasant. This forms an association between the images and pleasant effect which is repeated 30 times throughout the course of therapy.... The power of [the] ... training may be partly due to inputting images and suggestions in such a way that they bypass the conscious mind, thereby benefiting from the lack of interference from adult disbelief and disempowerment."

Other researchers have used a treatment protocol similar to Peniston's with equally good results. A couple of clinicians have added another twist — patients do the EEG brainwave training together in a group setting. The supportive element in group process has long been a key factor in alcoholism treatment (12-step and other groups). But the use of brain wave training in a group has raised interesting questions about whether people can actually influence each other's brain waves. Certainly "mob psychology" indicates that people are capable of thinking and acting quite differently while in a group than when alone. But how that relates to brain chemistry remains a mystery.

In the mind-body self-regulation groups run by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, participants regularly use biofeedback techniques together in the group. The program's director, Mary Lee Esty, believes the group practice has a supportive, reinforcing effect that enhances individual, at-home practice. The impact of biofeedback and mind-body self-regulation techniques within a small group setting merits further study. The Center plans to begin such a research project in 1996.

Increasingly sophisticated measurement devices may expand biofeedback's possibilities in the future. For example, a number of biofeedback experts, including Esty in Washington, D.C., are pioneering a new form of EEG training that uses light stimulation to increase the range and variability of patients' dominant brain frequencies. The treatment is proving successful with trauma victims whose brains have gotten "stuck" in a pattern of predominantly slow waves. EEG slowing is associated with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue, hyperactivity, distractibility, mood swings, confusion and disorganization.

More and more, biofeedback researchers are discovering that the key to wellness is not figuring out how to achieve a perpetual "theta state." The key is brain flexibility, or as Cowan writes, teaching [a person] "to perceive and control a number of different transitions among his own unique state-contexts, which differ among themselves in the amounts of each of these rhythms that they produce. Says Esty, "The objective is balance."

Clearly, the entire field of biofeedback is as ripe for new discovery as it was 30 years ago. According to Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons, biofeedback deserves more broad clinical trials on large patient populations to determine its effectiveness. "A major reason why many patients like biofeedback training is puts them in charge, giving them a sense of mastery and self-reliance over their illness and health," states the report to the National Institutes of Health. "Such an attitude may play a crucial role in the lower health care costs seen in patients after learning biofeedback skills."