Training the Brain for Sobriety

By The Fix staff 11/21/17
Neurofeedback therapy increases the chances of long-term recovery.
Invisible head with lit up brain.

Imagine if you could train your brain — strengthening positive habits and minimizing destructive patterns — by playing a video game. It sounds like science fiction, but that is the (vastly simplified) idea behind neurofeedback therapy.

“I like to explain it like it’s physical therapy for the brain,” says Julles Berky, a counselor at Maple Mountain Recovery, a treatment center in Mapleton, Utah that specializes in treating people with co-occurring substance use disorders and mental health diagnoses. At Maple Mountain all clients are offered neurofeedback sessions and this therapy has become an important part of treatment plans at the center.

“When our clients come in they’ve been putting all kinds of substances in their body and that affects their brains,” says Berky. “With neurofeedback we try to retrain the brain to work more efficiently and in a more healthy manner.”

During a session, a client’s brainwaves are measured using electrodes that are harmlessly placed on the outside of the head. The electrodes measure the client’s brain activity and a computer system provides a visual reward when clients increase desirable brainwaves. At Maple Mountain, counselors are specifically targeting high beta waves in order to help clients develop better impulse control, Berky says.

The client is not actively doing anything — he or she might read or just relax —but the brain becomes conditioned to give off the desired waves.

“When they’re making the brainwaves that need to be improved or enhanced the game goes forward and it plays a music note,” Berky explains. “It’s subconscious, but the brain learns quickly that that’s what it wants. That’s the reward.”

Clients at Maple Mountain are offered neurofeedback sessions two times per week during their time at Maple Mountain. Their brain function is measured when they arrive and when they depart and most people see an improvement of 30 to 40 percent, Berky says. Longterm, the implications for recovery can be great.

“The studies show that people who do neurofeedback consistently have higher likelihood of staying sober,” she explains. Studies like this one have shown that people who use neurofeedback sessions have lower risk of relapse.

“Addiction is a brain disease, and the more we can influence the brain the more chance they have for continued recovery,” says Mattie French, a case manager at Maple Mountain Recovery, who previously worked in the neurofeedback department. She says that the integration of neurofeedback for all clients was part of a plan about two years ago to utilize the newest and most efficient treatment modalities to help clients at Maple Mountain.

French said that while most clients have heard of neurofeedback, about half look forward to their first session and half are a little skeptical of the whole process.

“We invite them in for the first session and say we’re going to explain it to them and they have the choice to continue in it or not,” she says. “We stress the importance of it. When they begin to realize the effects that it could have they desire to do it and see it as an opportunity.”

Clients feel normal after the sessions, which last about half an hour. That can make it hard to recognize the changes that are happening, French said. While a physical workout might leave them tired or sore, the brain workout doesn’t have the same effects.

Some clients are also worried about the science, wondering if neurofeedback implants something in the brain. French emphasizes that the whole process is much more simple than that.

“Really it’s just increasing the strength of your brain muscle,” she says. “We’re not putting anything in, we’re just enhancing what your brain is already trying to do.”

Maple Mountain Recovery is a trauma-informed addiction treatment center in Mapleton, Utah. Learn more about their program at and follow them on Facebook.

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