Can Neurofeedback slow down normal ageing?

Numerous studies have shown how neurofeedback can benefit children and adults with ADHD by helping them to reduce symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulse control. However, in more recent years, research has extended into investigating whether neurofeedback might assist ageing individuals and those experiencing various forms of cognitive decline.

A number of studies have identified anomalies in EEG brain waves that could indicate preclinical dementia. EEG recordings can detect very early neurosynaptic changes which can occur well before brain structure changes and before the onset of the disease.

A few studies that have examined the efficacy of neurofeedback on healthy ageing patients have shown promising results.

One study (Fernandez et al., 2008) recruited fourteen cognitively and physically healthy elderly people aged over 60 to be assigned to either an experimental or placebo/control group. Before commencement of the experiment, all participants were tested for baseline IQ, normal blood pressure, normal cholesterol and normal hearing. The randomly assigned experimental group were given 30 EEG neurofeedback sessions of 30 minutes each which targeted their theta brainwaves (high EEG theta brainwaves are reported to be a strong predictor of mild cognitive decline) whilst the control group were provided with the same number of 30-minute placebo neurofeedback sessions. At the end of the 30 sessions, all participants were again IQ tested. Results showed no changes to the EEG patterns of the placebo/control group. However, those in the experimental group showed improvements in their verbal comprehension, which corresponded with changes in their EEG alpha and beta waves in the left hemisphere of the brain. Despite the small sample, the results may potentially be of use in treating elderly people with EEG risk of cognitive impairment.

Another study (Reis et al., 2016) tested the effects of intensive alpha and theta neurofeedback sessions (one 30-minute session per day for 8 days) on healthy elderly patients’ working memory. Participants were assigned to four groups (neurofeedback; neurofeedback supplemented with cognitive training; cognitive training only; and placebo neurofeedback only). The neurofeedback group showed increased alpha and theta, as well as improved performance in a matrix rotation task. Both the neurofeedback supplemented with cognitive training group and the purely cognitive training group showed moderate gains in performance on cognitive tasks, but no neurophysiological or behavioural improvements were observed.

In addition to improved cognitive performance in the elderly, studies have also explored the benefits of neurofeedback on improving static (postural stability) and dynamic balance in healthy elderly patients. A study by Azarpaikan and Torbati (2017) combined neurofeedback and somatosensory training (stimulation of the soles of the feet and walking on patterned surfaces) for healthy elderly adults and noted significant improvements in both static and dynamic balance compared to controls. The results suggest that neurofeedback training facilitates better performance and expedites the development of better static and dynamic balance in the elderly participants. Such training could reduce the risk of falls in elderly people, which may otherwise lead to a loss of independence.

Other studies have explored whether neurofeedback can improve cognitive performance in individuals with neurocognitive disorders such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Luijmes et al (2016) provided neurofeedback training for ten patients whose qEEG patterns were typical of Alzheimer’s disease. These patients were compared with 123 Alzheimer’s disease patients who received treatment as usual. Participants were aged between 61 and 90, and all received pre and post treatment testing in cognitive function. A comparison of the two groups indicated that the neurofeedback treatment group showed stability in cognitive function and improvement in learning memory, whilst the treatment as usual group showed an overall reduction in cognitive function, with the exception being their orientation in time. Other neurofeedback studies have obtained similarly promising results working with individuals who present with different types of dementia (such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia) (Berman & Frederick, 2009; Surmeli et al., 2016).

These studies provide hope not only for those wishing to prevent cognitive decline in ageing, but they may also minimise the sense of helplessness that an individual may feel upon being diagnosed with a neurocognitive disorder.