RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today in Your Health, we'll hear about some of the concerns that parents have for the health of their children. We begin with a condition that can be a challenge for many parents: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Medications are a common way to treat it.
MONTAGNE: But in recent years, researchers and parents have been trying other approaches to help children who are impulsive and have trouble focusing. One of the most popular is called neurofeedback. It's a type of therapy intended to teach the brain to stay calm and focused. Neurofeedback is expensive, time-consuming and still unproved. But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, there's growing evidence it can help.
JON HAMILTON: A couple of years ago, Katherine Ellison realized things were not going well with her son. He was 12 and had been diagnosed with ADHD.
Ms. KATHERINE ELLISON (Journalist, Author): He was getting into fights. He wasn't doing his homework. He was being very difficult with his little brother. And he was just melting down day after day. So I decided to devote a year to trying out different approaches to see if we could make it any better.
HAMILTON: Ellison isn't just any parent. She's a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, and she has ADHD herself.
Ellison has written a book about living with ADHD. It's called "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." And one chapter of the book is devoted to neurofeedback. Ellison says the idea appealed to her immediately.
Ms. ELLISON: Because I was always wary about using meds as a single approach or for very long, it seemed to be an interesting alternative. It's really like meditation on steroids.
HAMILTON: Ellison said she tried meditation, but her mind kept wandering. She says neurofeedback is better for people with ADHD, because it provides constant feedback during a session, which is usually done in a therapist's office.
Ms. ELLISON: You sit in a chair, and you're facing a laptop.
HAMILTON: The laptop is connected to electrodes applied to the scalp. Special software monitors the electrical activity in your brain. In particular, it measures rhythmic patterns known as theta and beta waves.
Proponents of neurofeedback say these patterns reveal when the brain is in a focused and attentive state. So the computer software looks for desirable brain wave patterns and changes the image on screen to let people know how they're doing. The image that worked best for Ellison showed a field.
Ms. ELLISON: When my brain responded the way that it was supposed to, the field would burst into color. I'd hear bird song, and beautiful flowers would bloom. But when I stopped - when I got distracted or I guess when I got a little bit more sped up, the flowers would wilt. It would turn gray, and I'd know that I needed to work a little harder.
HAMILTON: At first, people can't control the brain wave patterns - at least not consciously. But over time, their brains become conditioned to associate certain patterns with pleasant images or sounds - a reward for good behavior. And our brains like rewards. This sort of brain training can take 40 sessions or more, and typically costs thousands of dollars.
Also, even though there are studies now showing that neurofeedback works for ADHD, all of these studies have serious limitations. David Rabiner, a researcher at Duke University, calls the approach promising but unproved.
Dr. DAVID RABINER (Duke University): Parents do need to know that relative to treatments like medication treatment, to behavior therapy, at this point, the research base is not as extensive.
HAMILTON: On the other hand, Rabiner says, neurofeedback may offer something that other treatments can't.
Dr. RABINER: The hope for neurofeedback is that after training ends, the benefits that resulted from training will persist, that in some sense, there's been a more enduring change in the child's ability to focus and attend and to regulate their behavior.
HAMILTON: Rabiner says it will take better research to figure out whether neurofeedback can live up that promise.
Dr. RABINER: There has been a need for some time to have the kind of carefully controlled study that would provide more definitive answers for parents and for the field.
HAMILTON: And that research appears to be on the way.
A team at The Ohio State University has nearly completed a�pilot study�of neurofeedback for ADHD that was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The team had hoped to announce results last week at a scientific meeting in New York. But Gene Arnold, one of the scientists in charge of the study, said they had to delay that announcement.
Dr. GENE ARNOLD (Ohio State University): We weren't able to get the results analyzed in time.
HAMILTON: He says they should be out within a few weeks. In the meantime, he says, the study has shown that it is possible to do neurofeedback research that involves a placebo.
Arnold says the study used a video game involving racing cars. For kids who got neurofeedback, he says...
Dr. ARNOLD: The ability to speed up the car and steer it was contingent on maintaining your brain waves in a more favorable ratio.
HAMILTON: But other children got a placebo - a race car that paid no attention to their brain waves.
Until a large study comes along using this sort of approach, parents and consumers will have to decide for themselves whether neurofeedback is worth the time and effort. Katherine Ellison says that for her and for her son, it was.
Ms. ELLISON: I do believe that it helped both my son and myself. What I noticed in my son was not necessarily that he'd stop losing things at school or do his homework better. Some parents will tell you that happened. But with my son, the improvement that I saw was that he was easier to live with.
HAMILTON: But Ellison says brain training might not be the only reason. She says it might have been because she and her son went to all those sessions together and had pizza together afterward.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.