Can “Retraining” the Brain Help Addicts?

By Paul Gaita 12/02/13

A new Cardiff University study aims to determine whether or not neurofeedback can help treat alcohol and substance addiction.

Ideally patients won't have their heads split open.
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Scientists at Cardiff University in Wales are leading a major four-year study to determine whether neurofeedback - a technique that "retrains" the brain using positive imagery - can help individuals  with post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

A host of academic and industry figures from the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and the UK, among other countries, met in November as part of BRAINTRAIN, a £5.9 million consortium funded by the European Commission. As part of the study, scientists will use MRI scanners at Cardiff University's Brain Imaging Research Centre to monitor brain pattern activity of patients in real time, and then feed back the activity levels to the subjects in the form of a simple display onscreen. "Using the feedback, it allows patients to see and alter activity in specific parts of their brain," said Professor David Linden of the University's School of Psychology. "We will explore and refine real-time functional neuroimaging and find out whether they can be used to train patients to regulate their own brain activity." Previous studies have suggested that neurofeedback might help individuals with depression and symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Project members also suggested that the technique could be useful in addressing alcohol and substance addiction. Patients would be shown images of alcoholic beverages while researchers would explore which area of the brain was responsible for processing such pictures. From there, participants could receive the activity level feedback generated by the images and use the information as a sort of self-monitoring tool to restore brain function and promote resilience. "Ultimately, we hope to establish whether this new technique could become a part of comprehensive treatment programs for these conditions," Linden said.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.