Neurofeedback as an addiction therapy tool: What’s it really like?

Why does neurofeedback treatment have such high success rates in addiction treatment? A review of this high-tech, cutting edge therapy for addiction here.

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High-Tech Toolkit for Addiction: Neurofeedback Treatment

Are you looking for a new modality to help address addiction? Learn more about the cutting edge scientific practice of neurofeedback here! Then, send us your questions in the comments section at the bottom. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

Handing patients the keys to success

At Enterhealth – a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment company – we believe that neurofeedback therapy is on the cutting edge of neuropsychology and has the potential to help a great deal of people. Because neurofeedback treatment can be uniquely tailored to each individual, it is an incredibly useful tool in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, especially in cases involving dual-diagnosis (more on this later).

Neurofeedback for Substance Use Disorder

Ultimately, neurofeedback treatment has such high success rates because what it really does is teach the patient’s brain how to operate in a rational and calm state. Neurofeedback clinicians report that patients who go through neurofeedback therapy also improve their ability to:

  • reduce impulsivity
  • regulate behavior normally
  • regain focus

As more studies showing the efficacy of the treatment come to light, the principles of neurofeedback are gaining popularity as a way to treat Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Neurofeedback treatment teaches patients how to properly manage their mood and emotions, as well as improves their sleep. By incorporating neurofeedback therapy into our addiction treatment program, we give patients the skills they need to help them gain control, leading to decreased chances of relapse and higher success rates.

Enterhealth recently started using neurofeedback at Enterhealth Ranch residential treatment facility and at our Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence with great success. Our treatment is based on the latest National Institutes of Health research, and neurofeedback fits into our science-based approach implemented by board-certified, addiction-trained physicians, psychiatrists, nurses and therapists.

How does Neurofeedback work?

Neurofeedback relies on a technique known as Operant Conditioning. Also known as “instrumental conditioning,” operant conditioning is a type of learning in which a person’s behavior is modified by its consequences over time. These consequences can be positive, reinforcing good or proper behavior with a reward, or negative, reinforcing good or proper behavior by providing negative feedback in response to undesired behavior.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback in which brainwaves are measured by EEG (or similar technology) to produce a signal that acts as feedback to the subject. This feedback signal, commonly an audio/visual signal provided while watching a movie or playing a video game, is used to teach subjects how to self-regulate brain function using positive reinforcement for desired brain activity and negative feedback for brain activity that is not desired.

Essentially, neurofeedback is a process of reinforcing specific brainwaves that correspond with desired behavior. Or, to put it more plainly, neurofeedback is designed to teach the mind and body to operate in an optimal state in order to improve behavioral, cognitive, physical, and emotional experiences.

What does Neurofeedback testing actually look like?

When patients receive neurofeedback therapy, they watch a program that is a bit like a cross between a video and a video game. The programs are created by a third-party vendor, and they are tailored to the patient by the clinician administering the treatment as needed. While watching the program, an EEG machine monitors their brainwaves.

When a patient’s brainwaves correspond with the desired pattern, they may continue watching the program. If the patient’s brainwaves start to deviate from the desired pattern, the EEG machine detects this and alters the video, upping the contrast to stark white or dark black, and the accompanying audio may change as well. These changes in the video are the negative feedback. This process is similar the childhood game of hiding something and telling the person when they are getting “warmer” or “colder.”

Through this process of positive and negative reinforcement, the patient can learn to consciously control brainwave patterns. More interestingly, research also indicates that this learning also works on a subconscious level, meaning that the reinforcement, and thus the good behavior is actually instilled at an unconscious level.

Much of the growth and change that occurs in the patient’s brain happens between sessions, much like the period after weight lifting when the muscles repair themselves and grow. As a result, many patients report feeling a bit tired after a neurofeedback therapy session.

How to use Neurofeedback for addiction?

Abusing substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs impacts the brain in many ways. Advanced diagnostic imaging technology shows us that heavy, chronic drug or alcohol abuse results in significant alteration of brain activity. The brainwaves become out of synch, much like an orchestra that has instruments that are out of tune – or playing the wrong song altogether.

These alterations in brain activity can cause:

  • reduced cognition
  • impaired memory
  • impaired motor skills
  • challenges with visuospatial and emotional processing

As a result of the damage done to certain areas, the brain will start to co-opt other parts of itself to help with certain tasks.

For example, individuals who suffer from alcohol addiction have been shown to invoke different brain regions, especially executive functions, to accomplish a task that a person with healthy brain activity would use lower-level cognitive skills to accomplish.

Additionally, in combination with medical maintenance, neurofeedback therapy has been shown to greatly reduce drug or alcohol cravings – allowing patients to focus on treatment and further increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery.

Neurofeedback Can Help Dual Diagnosis!

Additionally, many people who struggle with substance abuse also have been diagnosed with other psychological diagnoses such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Disorder

The conditions may be present before the substance abuse, helping to precipitate it, or they may be a result of the damage done by the substance abuse.

Whatever the cause, it is important to identify any and all psychological conditions and treat them in the order of their severity. What this means is that if a person started abusing a substance to alleviate, say, severe depression, it is important to primarily address the depression in addition to treating the patient for addiction.

This approach has been found to have a dramatic increase in the success rate for those with a dual-diagnosis. That is, the person is undergoing treatment for addiction where there are other, sometimes multiple psychological disorders that need to be addressed at the same time.

The medical professionals at Enterhealth are uniquely equipped to deal with dual-diagnosis patients. The science-based treatment approach at Enterhealth Ranch and Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence is tailored to address each patient’s addiction level, abuse patterns and co-occurring issues.

The history behind Neurofeedback

Decades of research have proven the effectiveness of neurofeedback. The roots of the therapy stretch back to 1924, when German psychiatrist Hans Berger attached electrodes to a patient’s scalp and detected a small current using a ballistic galvanometer. Expanding on the work of others, Berger became the first person to record a human electroencephalogram, or EEG.

Several decades later, the first true EEG neurofeedback training emerged, introduced by Dr. Joe Kamiya of the University of Chicago and Dr. Barry Sterman of UCLA. While studying consciousness, Dr. Kamiya discovered that by using a very simple reward system, people could learn to alter their brain activity. Around the same time, Dr. Sternman was experimenting to determine if it is possible to control brainwaves. While neurofeedback sat in relative obscurity for a while, by the mid to late 1980s it began being applied to attention deficit disorders, and in the 1990s it was applied to a number of psychological conditions.

In the last decade, the medical community has changed its view of the brain, and principles such as neuroplasticity are now universally accepted. The interrelation of the central nervous system and autoimmune system, as well as emotional, physical and mental health is now a cornerstone of neuroscience, and neurofeedback is at the forefront of this evolution.

As an emerging technique used to treat addiction, the incorporation of the therapy at Enterhealth gives our medical team another tool to use in our comprehensive science-based treatment program.

To learn more about how Enterhealth Ranch and Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence utilize Neurofeedback treatment, please call 1-855-393-8660 for more information, or visit our website at

About the author
Dr. Urschel is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Strategist for Enterhealth, one of the finest residential and outpatient treatment programs in the nation. Known as one of the country's foremost authorities on substance abuse and addiction, Dr. Harold Urschel is the author of the New York Times best seller, “Healing the Addicted Brain.” He is a coveted speaker on substance abuse and the latest treatments of the chronic brain disease of addiction on both the local and national stage.
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