Parkinson’s Disease and Neurofeedback Therapy

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~ Michael J. Fox said, “I love the irony. I’m perceived as being really young and yet I have the clinical condition of an old man.”

Parkinson’s disease has taken center stage in recent years after “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox and former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali went public with their diagnoses. Billy Graham has been coping with Parkinson’s Disease for over 15 years. Some 1.5 million American’s are afflicted by the disease, and there are as many as 50,000 new cases each year.

According to experts, there is currently no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. Understandably, many doctors are very skeptical about the use of neurofeedback for Parkinson’s. However, one aspect of treatment with neurofeedback they are not likely aware of, is that neurofeedback does not profess to correct anything in the area of the brain responsible for Parkinson’s disease.

By the time the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease become obvious, some 75% of the neurons in an area known as the substantia nigra have been lost. This offers a great deal of insight; at the time of their diagnosis, most Parkinson’s afflicted patients are still capable of moving most of the muscles of their body by willful intention. Knowing that they are able to move without, on average, 75% of these neurons, leads to the conclusion that they are able to easily move at will with just 25% of their substantia nigra remaining.

The human brain is truly amazing. It has a great deal of plasticity, which means that areas of the brain that are not normally involved in certain functions will often contribute significantly, when the area that usually handles the task is damaged. Neurofeedback therapy can help to strengthen these pathways so they are better able to compensate for the part of the brain that is impaired.

A major role of neurofeedback therapy involves learning to better control and shift attention. With each shift in awareness, subtle changes in the part of the brain that is being used occur. Neurofeedback accomplishes these changes by effectively retraining the way parts of the brain function. Some therapists will recommend beginning and ending the treatment with a Quantitative EEG (QEEG) or “Brain Mapping” procedure to see how your brain is functioning.

The neurofeedback sessions themselves are noninvasive, comfortable, and considered by many patients to be quite relaxing. During the sessions, the therapist will attach very thin leads that transmit electrical energy from the brain into an EEG device. A special gel is used to comfortably hold the leads in place. The patient then uses brain waves to alter what is happening to a visual display on a computer screen. The brain perceives these activities as a reward, and with this positive reinforcement, will increasingly choose to use the desired waves.

Neurofeedback almost certainly has a role in lengthening the period of time that a Parkinson’s patient can live an active life. There is even reason to believe that neurofeedback therapy could help Parkinson’s patients to the point where brain surgery could be delayed for a time.