A small pilot study has shown that neurofeedback — where patients concentrate on modifying their own brainwave patterns — has the potential to treat many of the 100 million people worldwide who suffer from Treatment-Resistant Depression (TRD).
According to the study, presented at the 2017 European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Conference, this is the first time that neurofeedback has been shown to improve both individual symptoms and overall recovery in TRD.
The study, conducted by researchers at Yeungnam University Hospital in South Korea, found that neurofeedback may offer a viable treatment to patients suffering from TRD, if used with antidepressants.
Working with 12 patients with TRD and 12 control patients, the researchers put all 24 through 12 weeks of regular training sessions, where the patients learned how to vary their brainwaves in response to audio and visual signals.
In past research, different brainwaves have been shown to be associated with different moods and brain states, so the patients were asked to concentrate on changing the levels of particular types of brainwaves as they were displayed on a computer screen.
On each visit, patients received beta/sensorimotor rhythm training for 30 minutes, and then alpha/theta training for 30 minutes.
Psychological progress was measured using various standard depression questionnaires at the start of the treatment, then at one, four, and 12 weeks. The questionnaires showed how treatment affected such factors as interpersonal relationships, work ability, and family life, the researchers noted.
The researchers discovered that in the neurofeedback group, eight of the 12 patients responded to treatment, and five of those responded well enough to be classified as being in remission.
Most of these patients are now under long-term observation to see if remission has continued, the researchers said.
In contrast the control group did not show significant improvement from baseline after 12 weeks.
“Neurofeedback has been trialed with psychological conditions in the past, but as far as we know this is the first time that anyone has succeeded in achieving remission and overall functional recovery with treatment-resistant depression,” said Professor Eun-Jin Cheon, who led the research. “This is particularly important, because this is an otherwise untreatable group of patients.”
The study included patients with major depressive disorder, who still had residual symptoms and functional impairment despite receiving antidepressant treatment, Cheon added.
“Our results suggested that neurofeedback might be an effective complementary treatment to make patients feel well again and successfully engage with life,” Cheon noted. “The most promising thing about neurofeedback is it doesn’t cause even mild side effects.”
Researchers emphasized that this was a small study.
“It’s still at the level of clinical science rather than clinical treatment, so we are a long way from this finding its way into the clinic,” Cheon said. “But the results surprised us. It merits further investigation.”