Neurofeedback Effectiveness in Treating Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

Since the 1970s, neurofeedback – or EEG biofeedback – has emerged as a promising solution for the treatment of mental health and neurological conditions, particularly ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. Its effectiveness in managing symptoms of addiction and substance use disorders is promising, with various studies observing a lower rate of relapse and decreased symptoms of depression among those who implement neurofeedback training on their road to recovery.

In this blog post, we’ll examine the root causes of addiction, the typical patterns of brainwave dysregulation it is associated with, and how neurofeedback has been and can be used as an effective means to safeguard sobriety.

At TN Neurofeedback, we have worked with many clients who are beginning their recovery process or have been in recovery for a long time. Neurofeedback can significantly aid in achieving and maintaining sobriety. For some, this is due to diminished cravings. For others, we work towards diminishing impulsivity so the client has more agency when faced with the desire to use. In many cases, we use neurofeedback to decrease the anxiety that is underlying substance use, eliminating the need to cope with alcohol, drugs, or other behaviors we use to feel more regulated.
Using a brain map and consultation, we can better understand the “why” behind certain addictive behaviors. With this information, we then use neurofeedback to heal the brain, making recovery easier and more sustainable.

What Causes Addiction?

The underlying causes of addiction are complex. Until recently, addiction was viewed as resulting from poor life choices and moral failure. This simplistic and inaccurate assessment prevented many individuals suffering from substance use disorders from accessing the help they so desperately needed. Fortunately, the scientific consensus around addiction has shifted and now recognizes the following underlying causes of addiction:

Genetics. Several genes influence our susceptibility to addiction, as well as our response to treatment. These include:

  • DRD2, a gene involved in the regulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in our ability to feel pleasure.
  • OPRM1, a gene code for the mu-opioid receptor targeted by opioids. Variants of this gene are known to affect opioid sensitivity.
  • COMT, a gene that encodes an enzyme responsible for breaking down neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex, which can cause differences in dopamine metabolism.
  • SLC6A4, a gene code for the serotonin transporter, that can impact serotonin activity and response to substance abuse treatment.
  • BDNF, a gene that encodes a protein involved in neuroplasticity.

Note, however, that genetics by themselves cannot cause addiction – they can only predispose us to it. In order for addiction to manifest itself, it needs a little help from:

Trauma. People suffering from complex trauma or PTSD may turn to alcohol or painkillers to relieve their symptoms, making them more susceptible to substance abuse. Developmental or childhood trauma can also lead to a higher risk of addiction in adulthood.

Mental health disorders. Those suffering from anxiety or depression may engage in risky behaviors in order to self-regulate.

Chronic pain. Individuals suffering from chronic pain conditions may become addicted to painkillers as they try to manage their symptoms.

Social environment. Poverty, isolation, and peer pressure can all increase our risk of becoming addicted to certain substances or behaviors.

Addiction is usually a symptom of an underlying problem – more often than not, trauma. To this end, it’s important to note that addiction is not limited to drugs and alcohol alone. We can become addicted to behaviors just as easily as to substances, so if you are struggling with gambling, binge eating, or compulsive shopping, know that your struggle is as valid, and should be approached with the same level of care and dedication from whom you entrusted with your recovery.

Neurofeedback for Addiction and Substance Abuse

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that helps regulate the areas of our brain that have stopped acting in our best interest. It is usually used in conjunction with talk therapy and/or medication, maximizing their efficacy.

Neurofeedback training is rooted in the principle of neuroplasticity, which postulates that our brain has the capacity to adapt throughout our life in direct response to what we experience and the feedback we receive. To identify what’s not working, we use special technology that allows us to visualize brainwave activity. To regulate it, we turn to operant conditioning, which provides patients with real-time feedback on brain activity and encourages them to self-regulate through trial and error.

Neurofeedback is highly effective in helping individuals impaired by addiction to self-regulate:

  • One study noted that individuals frequenting an inpatient substance abuse program were more likely to remain in therapy longer if they received neurofeedback sessions alongside therapy. The same study noted that neurotherapy minimized relapse incidence (Scott, Kaiser, Othmer, and Sideroff, 2005).
  • Reports from a similar treatment program with homeless crack cocaine addicts showed that adding neurofeedback to treatment more than tripled the length of stay in the recovery center (Burkett, Cummins, Dickson, & Skolnick, 2005). Findings were similar in opioid addiction programs.

Identifying Patterns of Neural Dysregulation Associated with Addiction

A number of things can go awry in our brains when we’re struggling with addiction. Brain mapping allows us to treat each case with a high level of specificity. By identifying a client’s patterns at the neurological level, we can alleviate the root cause of the addictive behavior, allowing the client to more easily cope with triggers and avoid problematic coping.

The following patterns of brainwave dysregulation can be seen in addiction:

  • Frontal lobe dysregulation, where there’s a decrease in alpha activity and an increase in beta activity in the frontal regions of the brain. This can impact our decision-making and ability to control our impulses.
  • Limbic system dysregulation, where we can see an increased theta wave activity in the limbic regions of the brain. This area is involved in regulating our emotions and processing rewards.
  • Basal ganglia dysregulation, where we see an increase in beta activity in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain involved in habit formation.
  • Insula dysregulation, where there’s an increased theta and beta wave activity in the insula regions of the brain, which are involved in processing interoceptive information such as pain and hunger.

It’s important to note that addiction can be both the cause and the effect of neural dysregulation. For example, opioid addiction can reduce alpha and spike beta wave activity in the frontal lobe, or it can happen as a result of an identical preexisting, genetically determined dysregulation. The most important aspect, however, is that regardless of what came first, we can use neurofeedback to bring brainwave activity back to a healthy baseline.

QEEG Brain Mapping for Addiction

At Tennessee Neurofeedback, we specialize in QEEG, allowing us to get more specific about what kind of dysregulation is leading to addictive patterns for each individual client. To identify problematic brainwave activity, we use something called a brain map. This involves placing a sensor cap on your head that allows us to visualize the electrical impulses in your brain. By referencing a bank of hundreds of other brain maps from the same age group and developmental stage, we can pinpoint where dysregulation occurs, meaning where your brain patterns started deviating from a healthy baseline.

Brain mapping is a quick, non-invasive, and painless method that is an invaluable resource for neurofeedback training. Moreover, while they cannot in and of themselves provide a diagnosis, brain maps can help therapists and psychiatrists to offer more effective and individualized treatment plans. In cases of addiction, brainmaps allow us to identify an individual’s particular struggles with anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and cravings that make recovery harder to sustain.

To schedule a brain mapping session and begin your neurofeedback journey, get in touch with us.