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Can Brain Training and Biofeedback Help Prevent Depression

In two inno­v­a­tive pilot stud­ies, Ian Gotlib and his col­leagues at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, Cal­i­for­nia, showed that brain train­ing can be used to help elim­i­nate depres­sion, even before it starts. They stud­ied young girls (10 to 14 year old) whose moth­ers were depressed and who thus were at high­er risk of devel­op­ing depres­sion them­selves lat­er-on. The girls had not expe­ri­enced depres­sion per se but already showed behav­iors typ­i­cal of depressed brains, such as over­re­ac­tion to neg­a­tive stim­uli.

Two sim­ple brain train­ing meth­ods

The group of researchers explored two brain rewiring meth­ods to try to elim­i­nate depres­sive trends in the girls. One was a sim­ple com­put­er game that aimed at train­ing the brain to pay atten­tion to pos­i­tive stim­uli over neg­a­tive stim­uli. The game showed pairs of faces: either a neu­tral face paired with a sad face or a neu­tral face paired with a hap­py one. After the pair was shown a dot replaced one of the faces and the girls had to click on the dot. To train the brain to pay atten­tion to the pos­i­tive faces over the neg­a­tive faces, the dot always replaced the pos­i­tive face. Com­pared to a group of girls for whom the dot ran­dom­ly replaced the neu­tral, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive face, girls for whom the dot always replaced the pos­i­tive face were effi­cient­ly trained to avoid look­ing at the sad faces. This was observed after only one week of dai­ly train­ing.

The oth­er brain rewiring method used by the group was sim­i­lar to the biofeed­back meth­ods used to reduce stress. The activ­i­ty in a net­work of brain regions pre­vi­ous­ly asso­ci­at­ed with depres­sion was mea­sured via an fMRi scan and pre­sent­ed to the girls in the form of a ther­mome­ter on a screen. The girls were shown negative/sad pic­tures that would nor­mal­ly raise the activ­i­ty in these brain regions (and thus raise the tem­per­a­ture of the “ther­mome­ter”) and tried to low­er their brain activ­i­ty by chang­ing their men­tal states. Girls in a con­trol group were shown brain activ­i­ty from some­body else so they did not get to learn how to con­trol their own men­tal states. After the train­ing, girls in the exper­i­men­tal group showed less stress respons­es to neg­a­tive stim­uli.

It can work

Both brain train­ing meth­ods were thus effi­cient. One trained the girls at avoid­ing sad stim­uli and the oth­er at con­trol­ling men­tal activ­i­ty in brain regions asso­ci­at­ed with depres­sive men­tal states. Both types of train­ing were suc­cess­ful in dimin­ish­ing stress-respons­es asso­ci­at­ed to neg­a­tive stim­uli. Such respons­es are a key symp­tom in depres­sion.

Although these are only pilot stud­ies involv­ing very few par­tic­i­pants, the results are very promis­ing. They once more show how plas­tic the brain is and under­line the high poten­tial of brain train­ing to help rewire and change behav­iors.

Note the sim­plic­i­ty of the com­put­er game used here: although the brain is a com­plex machine, behav­iors some­times do not need much to be mod­i­fied. Tak­ing behav­iors ear­ly on may also help in the process of chang­ing them. It is inter­est­ing to note too that sim­i­lar behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tions can be achieved through oth­er brain train­ing meth­ods such cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­a­py in which old pat­terns of thoughts are replaced by new, health­i­er ones.

Cred­it for pic: Big­Stock­Pho­to.

— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph.D. Dr. Mich­e­lon is Cog­ni­tive Sci­ences expert and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ul­ty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and facil­i­tates mem­o­ry work­shops in retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties in the St Louis area.

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  1. Thanks for shar­ing the research. fMRI seems to be an expen­sive way of doing biofeed­back. I’m a biofeed­back prac­ti­tion­er and use a much cheap­er method based on sens­ing infra-red heat radi­a­tion from the fore­head — also known as hemo­en­cephalog­ra­phy.

    • Thank you Glyn. fMRI is pri­mar­i­ly a research, not clin­i­cal tool. More prac­ti­cal biofeed­back modal­i­ties where we see increased research and adop­tion are heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV) and EEG, you can find a good num­ber of arti­cles here on on both (see search box top right).

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