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Learning disabilities involve problems with the efficient processing of information, which can interfere with a person’s ability to learn, reason, read, write, spell, do math, organize information, interpret spatial information, communicate with language, or understand and interpret social cues. They can severely impair a person’s functioning in school, at work and in family and social situations. Academic achievement and success in life are often far below their actual potential for individuals with learning disabilities, who often feel frustrated and “dumb” because they fail to achieve up to their potential.

Learning disabilities are believed to be caused by how the brain is “wired;” how the brain acts when it has to process information and how efficiently and effectively different parts of the brain coordinate with each other. For example, in order to read, the individual must accurately perceive letters and words, which involves the visual cortex in the back of the brain. The person must also understand the sounds that are associated with those symbols, involving the auditory cortex in the lower middle parts of the brain. In addition, the individual has to interpret the meanings of those symbols, which might be processed by the area where these two parts of the brain meet. That is not all. The person must coordinate the motor movements of the eyes, which involves parts of the frontal lobes, and think of the language being produced, which involves other parts of the frontal cortex. This is a great deal of coordination and, if any part of the brain is too slow or fast in communicating with the other parts of the brain, reading will be difficult. This same complexity of brain activation, coordination and efficiency exists in all other learning processes.

In the neurobiology of the brain, electrical and chemical activity continuously influence each other. The electrical signals in the brain get transmitted at different speeds or frequencies. These frequencies determine the speed and efficiency of information flow in the brain. Brain wave frequencies range from very slow, as in sleep, to faster activity in more engaged and attentive states. For example, in order to maintain alertness, engagement in the outside world and a positive mood, there needs to be sufficient faster activity in the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are known as the executive parts of the brain because they are involved in coordinating and integrating all the other parts of the brain through processes such as attending, planning, organizing, inhibiting, delaying, controlling emotional responses, considering long-term consequences, and considering alternative meanings of information and alternative courses of action. In order to process sensory information efficiently, the back part of the brain, the occipital (visual processing), parietal (spatial processing) and temporal (auditory processing) lobes cannot be producing too much fast activity, which might make them over-activated, or too much slow activity, which might make them under-aroused.

Furthermore, in order to learn anything, different parts of the brain have to communicate with each other. It is presumed that this happens when the electrical signals in different parts of the brain fire in synchrony with each other. At the same time, different parts of the brain have to remain somewhat independent from each other because each region of the brain has a different job to do. Therefore, we want the different parts of our cortex coordinating to a certain degree, but also maintaining their independence.

Neurofeedback works by training the brain to produce faster or slower electrical activity in selected parts of the brain, or by training different parts of the brain to coordinate more or less with each other. In neurofeedback treatment, we monitor the individual’s brain wave state or EEG in a comfortable and painless way while the individual sits in a comfortable chair and “plays” a video game-like exercise which is controlled by his or her brain wave activity. For example, the exercise can be set up so when the individual’s brain wave activity shows that he or she is increasing fast activity and inhibiting slow wave activity in the left frontal lobe, a pattern which is sometimes trained to treat inefficient processing, the individual earns points in the “game” and the action on the screen advances. Or, when two parts of the cortex are firing in synchrony with each other, the individual will succeed at the game. When the brain wave activity gets out of the desired pattern, the action in the game stops, and the brain then has to find a way to get back into the desired pattern to earn more points. The brain does this unconsciously through the individual attending to the visual and auditory feedback that is provided when succeeding at the game. This is like exercise for the brain, and the brain learns to produce the desired pattern on its own.

Since there are so many types of learning disabilities and processing problems, and since each individual is different, training protocols are tailored to the needs and symptoms of each individual . In order to more accurately target treatment to the individual’s specific needs, it is often helpful to have a brain map or quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) to guide the neurofeedback treatment.

Of course, no treatment works for everyone and there is always a potential risk of unwanted effects in any form of treatment. That is why we encourage you to discuss this treatment with someone knowledgeable about the scientific studies and the clinical applications of neurofeedback so you can make an informed choice for yourself or your child.

Studies that deal with the use of neurofeedback with learning disabilities are as follows;

Cunningham, M., & Murphy, P. (1981). The effects of bilateral EEG biofeedback on verbal, visuospatial and creative skills in LD male adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 14(4), 204-208.

Jackson, G. M., & Eberly, D. A. (1982). Facilitation of performance on an arithmetic task as a result of the application of a biofeedback procedure to suppress alpha wave activity. Biofeedback & Self-Regulation, 7(2), 211-221.

Jacobs, E. H. (2005). Neurofeedback treatment of two children with learning, attention mood, social, and developmental deficits.
Journal of Neurotherapy, 9(4), 55-70.

Lubar, J. F. (1985). EEG biofeedback and learning disabilities. Theory into Practice, 26, 106-111

Orlando, P. C., & Rivera, R. O. (2004). Neurofeedback for elementary students with identified learning problems. Journal of Neurotherapy, 8(2), 5-19.

Tansey, M. A. (1991). Wechsler (WISC-R) changes following treatment of learning disabilities via EEG biofeedback in a private practice setting. Australian Journal of Psychology, 43, 147-153.

Thornton, KE and Carmody, DP (2005). Electroencephalogram biofeedback for reading disability and traumatic brain injury, in Hirshberg, LM, Chiu, S & Frazier, JA (Eds.) Child and
Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America: Emerging Interventions, 14, 1, 137-162.

Walker, JE, Kozlowski, GP & Lawson, R (2007). A modular activation/coherence approach to evaluating clinical/QEEG correlations and for guiding neurofeedback training: modular insufficiencies, modular excesses, disconnections, and hyperconnections. Journal of Neurotherapy, 11, 1, 25- 44.