After a traumatic car accident left her with nightmares and chronic pain, “Donna,” a 36-year-old Asheville mental health counselor, started taking medication to help her sleep. “I would try to go a day or two without [sleep meds], and I would get so sleep-deprived I couldn’t function,” says Donna.
Donna had been taking Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since the age of 6. “With the anxiety that comes along with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] , the Adderall turned that way up … which made the sleeping problems worse. I made the decision [to stop medications] for my personal health and the sustainability of my life,” says Donna, who prefers to use a different name to protect her confidentiality.
She sought treatment at Apex Brain Centers to help her stop both medications. Her initial evaluation consisted of brain mapping (a quantitative EEG, or electroencephalogram, of her brain waves), neurological testing and a health history. Over the course of five days, with three sessions each day, Donna underwent brain-training exercises involving timing, balance, eye movement, neurofeedback and transcranial magnetic stimulation. Nutritional support for her conditions was implemented as well.
“The first two days I was tired. On day three, I hit a wall. I was really exhausted,” she says. “On day four, I woke up and everything was clearer. By the end of the week, I was going to sleep easily, literally colors looked brighter, and my thoughts were more organized. I’ve been able to maintain sleeping without medication. … I haven’t gone back to Adderall at all, and I’ve been able to do the things I need to do.”
Dr. Michael Trayford, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist and the founder and director of Apex, says that brain training can help people who, like Donna, have emotional and cognitive disorders that have been treated with medication. “We’re overloaded with medication in our society,” he says. “We’re chasing symptoms with more medications. Conventional neurology is pharmaceutically driven, whereas brain training is functionally driven. When people go through our program, they remember better, sleep better and focus better.”
Trayford describes brain training as a narrative between the mind and brain. “It bridges the gap between the two,” he says. “We’re not treating the mind per se, but we know we’re doing work on the mind because people have greater clarity and presence of mind. Even relationships improve because people recognize social cues better.”
Brain training developed as a form of mind-body treatment as major advances were made in neuroscience over the last two decades, Trayford explains. Previously, scientists believed that people lose brain cells over the course of their lifetimes and that the brain does not regenerate new cells to replace the lost ones. “The discovery of neuroplasticity changed all that,” he says. “The brain has an amazing capacity to grow and change throughout life, even to regenerate cells, and that’s what we’re working with at Apex.”
According to Trayford, brain training is useful for brain injuries as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and dementia. It can also counteract the effects of normal brain aging, he adds. “People’s greatest fear is of a declining brain,” he says. “People are living longer with less quality of life. We add quality of life to years.”
Trayford also uses brain training to help people achieve peak performance in athletic, academic and artistic endeavors. “Brain training improves awareness, alertness and concentration, which enables people to live up to their potential,” he says.
Neurofeedback (also called EEG biofeedback) is a type of brain training that “helps a client gain control of their nervous system in a way they consciously, before this, would not have been able to do,” says psychologist Phil Ellis, director of Focus Centers of Asheville. “We’re all traveling on our way to try to improve our health, our cognitive processes and our ability to relax and control stress. … All these things are achieved by helping people manipulate their brain waves with instruments.”
With neurofeedback, people learn how to move between brain states for optimal functioning, Ellis explains. Different people need different levels of these states to function well, he says. There are four main types of brain waves, he continues: beta, our normal waking state; alpha, our resting state; theta, a deep, contemplative state; and delta, a sleep state. “Alpha is calm and focused, theta is where past conflicts are resolved, and delta is where the brain repairs itself. The deeper you go, the more repair there is for the brain, from either stress or organic causes.”
Psychologist Mary Ammerman, partner with fellow psychologist Ed Hamlin at the Institute of Applied Neuroscience, describes these different brain states as higher and lower states of arousal. “The beauty of neurofeedback is the arousal model,” she says. “The nervous system has to be at the right level of arousal to do certain tasks. We want arousal to be flexible enough so we can do different tasks and stable enough to complete a task. Neurofeedback is yoga for the brain because it increases flexibility and stability of arousal.
“Neurofeedback is a way of holding up a mirror to one’s own brain so it can get information about its performance,” Ammerman says. In this way, she explains, people learn to modify their levels of arousal. “Neurofeedback works with the brain’s ability to change itself. It’s like a game of hotter and colder, trying to get in the middle, in that alert but relaxed state.
“When your brain is first wiring up [in childhood], it finds the best compromise it can and then stops,” says Ammerman. “It looks at shortcuts. The first compromise may not be optimal. For some people that is like speeding around town in a car with the emergency brake on. There are more efficient ways to learn to operate your nervous system.
“Our mind is built as a defense mechanism, and from a survival standpoint, it’s more important to pay attention to the negative than the positive — to notice potential threats more than potential benefits” says Ammerman. “That’s why the Dalai Lama said happiness is a disciplined mind. We see it as necessary to have a disciplined mind to overcome the mind’s negativity and have peace of mind.”
Neurofeedback can help people discipline their minds and achieve optimal brain functioning. “People have accepted that it takes effort to be physically healthy,” says Ammerman, “but what they don’t realize is that it also takes effort to be emotionally healthy.”
The good news is that once people have made the effort to train their brains through a full course of neurofeedback, the changes are lasting, says Ellis. “Neurofeedback is a form of operant conditioning that creates permanent change,” he explains. “The brain learns. You train the brain, and it remembers. … People’s brain waves change, and even the MMPI [personality test] changes.”
Neurofeedback is gaining more credibility in the health care field because of its evidence base, says Ellis. “We are trying to knock on the door of established health providers to get them to allow in instruments, which is kind of foreign in mental health and for those who administer medications,” he notes. “At the beginning, it was a hard sell to physicians that this was something more than simply another complementary, unproven, not-yet-fully-researched tool. … It wasn’t until ’93 that the American Pediatric Association endorsed it for certain conditions … as having a high level of efficacy, as high as similar medications.”
At the same time that neurofeedback is making inroads into modern medicine, it is catching up to the ancient wisdom of Eastern philosophies, says Ammerman. “The wise people for thousands of years taught that calming your body and training your mind are the keys to mental and emotional well-being,” she says. “Now neuroscience is helping connect the dots for why this works.”