Neurofeedback Shows Promise In Helping Youth Manage Emotions

Written By: Rick Nauert PhD

A new study suggests neurofeedback may help young people learn to manage emotions.

Neurofeedback is a kind of biofeedback that uses real-time brain activity displays to teach self-regulation of brain function. Although it is routinely used with adults to help them control emotions, the technique has not been used on young people.

The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, demonstrates that the technique shows promise for young people as well.

Investigators explain that emotional events in childhood can cause various psychological issues and even lead to full-blown psychiatric problems (in cases of emotionally catastrophic events). Trauma experienced in youth can contribute to later problems such as depression, anxiety, and even more serious conditions.

The study used real time fMRI-based neurofeedback on a sample of kids from seven to 16 years old.

“They observed emotionally charged images while we monitored their brain activity, before ‘returning’ it back to them,” said researcher and co-author Moses Sokunbi, Ph.D. The region of the brain studied was the insula, in the cerebral cortex.

The young participants could see the level of activation of the insula on a “thermometer” presented on the MRI projector screen and were instructed to reduce or increase activation with cognitive strategies while verifying the effects on the thermometer.

All of them learned how to increase insula activity (decreasing was more difficult). Specific analysis techniques made it possible to reconstruct the complete network of the areas involved in regulating emotions (besides the insula) and the internal flow of activation. In this way, scientists observed that the direction of flow when activity was increased reversed when decreased.

“These results show that the effect of neurofeedback went beyond the superficial — simple activation of the insula — by influencing the entire network that regulates emotions,” said Kathrin Cohen Kadosh, Ph.D., an Oxford University researcher and first author of the study.

“They demonstrate that neurofeedback is a methodology that can be used successfully with young people.”

“Childhood and adolescence is an extremely important time for young people’s emotional development,” said Jennifer Lau, Ph.D., from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, who took part in the study.

“Therefore, the ability to shape brain networks associated with the regulation of emotions could be crucial for preventing future mental health problems, which are known to arise during this vital period when the brain’s emotional capacity is still developing.”