Thursday, October 4, 2007

Neurofeedback Is Now in Common Use

When I started writing Stewards of the Flame some years ago, primitive EEG biofeedback was popular, and I based my idea of the mind training in the story on an expanded conception of it. When I returned to the book in 2005, I discovered the term "neurofeedback" had become current, so I changed to that word. I didn't change anything in my treatment of the process, which I envisioned as involving more advanced technology than mere EEG input and more sophisticated software than exists today. But I'm fascinated to see that we're already a good deal further along in the use of neurofeedback than I guessed we'd be in this era, largely because of the combination of feedback with computer graphics.

Neurofeedback is an extremely promising form of therapy, now commonly used with children who have ADHD or autism and with adults for such problems as epilepsy and migraine headaches. It is also used to enhance concentration, and thus performance, by people in many fields, from athletes and business executives to NASA pilots. The Web has many sites maintained by clinics or individual psychologists who are promoting their services; Googling "neurofeedback" brings up over 500,000 hits.

So far, neurofeedback has used only EEG (brain wave) input. But a few companies are beginning to experiment with the use of functional MRI brain scanning. For more information about this, see the "Mental Control of Pain" heading at www.stewardsoftheflame.com (I don't want to go into it here, as it might be too much of a spoiler for the story). Pain control is not the only potential use of fMRI, however. According to the New York Times, "Omneuron is also researching treatments for addiction, depression and other psychological illnesses.... The company has contemplated 'several dozen applications,' including the treatment of stroke and epilepsy. Brain scanning could even be used to improve athletic performance." Several other companies are planning to use it for lie detection.

Functional MRI is an exciting new technology that permits the action of the brain to be actually seen in real time. However, today's MRI scanners are not practical tools for widespread use in applications like these. An MRI machine is very large, very noisy, and requires the subject to remain absolutely still for a long period of time. And it cannot be used, or even approached, by anyone who has any sort of metal implant such as a pacemaker -- or according to some accounts, even a microchip -- because of the strong magnetic field. So it's a long way from the sort of neurofeedback used by my characters. But after all, the story takes place far in the future; considering how fast miniaturization of technology has progressed during just the past few decades, it's reasonable to suppose that brain scanning could be accomplished with mere helmets in an era when interstellar travel is routine.

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