Michaela’s son had been hyperactive since he was a baby.
In first grade, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Like many children with this condition, the young boy started taking a stimulant medication to treat his ADHD.
It was never quite enough. Medical practitioners tried adding various medications for other symptoms over the years, with marginal success.
Michaela, a Tennessee mother who asked that we use only her first name, felt guilty about giving her son medication. That sparked her interest in neurofeedback.
“When you are desperate to find help for your child,” Michaela told Healthline, “you'll try anything that is safe and documented in the literature.”
ADHD Is a Growing Concern
Approximately 11 percent of children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Some experts are calling it an epidemic.
The rising number of ADHD cases has led some parents to try alternatives such as neurofeedback.
A few years ago neurofeedback was added to the list of ADHD treatments. The expensive alternative treatment is a procedure where a therapist reads brain activity on an electroencephalography (EEG) test and adjusts feedback to directly train brain function.
Many experts are still skeptical about the validity of neurofeedback as a mainstream treatment for ADHD.
They cite studies that failed to show significant improvement in ADHD symptoms and studies that weren’t controlled enough to truly validate outcomes.
However, as the rates of ADHD have risen, the condition has been studied more intensely. There was little research on the efficacy of neurofeedback to treat ADHD before 2000. There have been dozens of studies on the subject since then.
How Neurofeedback Works
In a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Pediatrics, children with ADHD who received neurofeedback made both quicker and greater improvements in ADHD symptoms than kids who had only cognitive training or neither treatment. Those improvements were still seen six months after neurofeedback sessions ended.
This study suggests neurofeedback is a promising treatment for ADHD, one that could have lasting effects, unlike ADHD medication that only eases symptoms when it is taken daily.
Neurofeedback is essentially playing a video game but with the child’s brain as the controller instead of their fingers. Brain waves are measured through an EEG as the child interacts with the game.
When the treatment works, ADHD children harness their brain waves appropriately by learning how to control them. That spurs the motivation to participate and retrains their brain at the same time, improving focus and attention. In addition, memories are formed for how they succeeded and are used in everyday life.
Worth the Risk for Some Parents
Desperate parents with the means to cover the cost of the treatment have been willing to try neurofeedback with their kids.
Michaela is one of them.
When her son was in sixth grade, they participated in approximately 25 sessions back-to-back for a month.
“Other than the $3,000 hit to my wallet, we consider neurofeedback a success,” said Michaela. “At first, things got worse as his brain was reorganizing. After the second or third week, my son noted his thoughts were ‘quieter than normal,’ which he really liked. Overall, after a month of neurofeedback, we noticed reduced anxiety and better responses to our requests to do things he didn’t like, such as homework and chores.”
While psychologists told the family they could stop their son’s medication, Michaela knew that wasn’t a possibility. They were, however, able to lower his medication dosage for ADHD and anxiety while maintaining success. Despite the continued need for medication, Michaela says, “We were happy with the differences we saw in his behavior.”
The positive effects of neurofeedback are still pronounced, 18 months after completing treatment.
“Life at home significantly improved with the treatment, while some disorganization and attentiveness are still a bit of a challenge at school,” Michaela said. “I think neurofeedback should be covered by health insurance so this treatment would be accessible to all ADHD families and for longer treatment periods.”
Anecdotal evidence, like the story of Michaela and her son, may be enough to spur more families to try neurofeedback. ADHD cannot be cured, but some experts feel neurofeedback shows promise in treating symptoms long-term.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is an award-winning blogger and author of the Amazon best-seller, "Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD." Her second book, "What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD," is now available.