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Real-time brain feedback can help people overcome anxiety

May 13, 2013

This image from the study shows changes in degree of connectivity in the feedback group. Increases are shown in red/yellow and decreases in blue/purple. Decreases in connectivity are seen in limbic areas, and increases are seen in prefrontal regions.

People provided with a real-time readout of activity in specific regions of their brains can learn to control that activity and lessen their anxiety, according to new findings published online in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Yale researchers displayed the activity of the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region just above the eyes, to subjects while they lay in a brain scanner.

Through a process of trial and error, these subjects were gradually able to learn to control their brain activity. This led both to changes in brain connectivity and to increased control over anxiety. These changes were still present several days after the training.

Extreme anxiety associated with worries about dirt and germs is characteristic of many patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hyperactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex is seen in many of these individuals.

fMRI-driven neurofeedback has been used before in a few contexts, but it has never been applied to the treatment of anxiety. The findings raise the possibility that real-time fMRI feedback may provide a novel and effective form of treatment for OCD.

Michelle Hampson, assistant professor of diagnostic radiology, is senior author. Dustin Scheinost, a graduate student in the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, is lead author. Other Yale authors include Teodora Stoica, John Saksa, Xenophon Papademetris, R. Todd Constable, and Christopher Pittenger.

Text via Yale News. Read the study at Translational Psychiatry.

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