Neurofeedback May Help Ease Chemo Brain

Neurofeedback May Help Ease Chemo Brain

Neurofeedback — a type of therapy that uses a computer program to measure brain wave activity — shows promise for treating the mental fogginess many people have after chemotherapy.
Sep 8, 2022.

Neurofeedback — a type of therapy that uses a computer program to measure brain wave activity — shows promise for treating the mental fogginess many people have after chemotherapy, according to a very small pilot study.

The research was published online on Aug. 2, 2022, by the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Read the abstract of “A neurotherapy protocol to remediate cognitive deficits after adjuvant chemotherapy: a pilot study.”


What is chemo brain?

During and after breast cancer treatment, many people find it difficult to think clearly or to remember or concentrate on things. Doctors refer to these issues as cognitive impairment or cognitive problems, but people commonly refer to them as chemo brain or chemo fog.

People with chemo brain may have trouble:

  • learning new tasks

  • remembering names

  • paying attention and concentrating

  • finding the right words

  • multitasking

  • organizing thoughts

  • making decisions

  • remembering where they’ve left personal items

According to the National Cancer Institute, up to 75% of people diagnosed with breast cancer say they have cognitive problems during chemotherapy. In some cases, people can have cognitive problems several years after completing chemotherapy.


What is neurofeedback?

Also known as electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback, neurofeedback is a type of therapy that uses a computer program to analyze your brain wave activity and give you immediate feedback. The computer program uses visual or sound signals to help people recognize their thought patterns so they can try to change them.

Neurofeedback is thought to help your brain develop healthier patterns of activity, which:

  • can improve how you think and feel

  • change your brain biologically so it functions better


What are brain waves?

Brain cells communicate through electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are called brain waves. Brain waves are measured in two ways:

  • frequency: how fast the wave moves

  • amplitude: how tall the wave gets when it goes up and down

There are five main types of brain waves. Each is linked to certain mental states:

  • gamma: concentration, peak focus

  • beta: alertness, cognition

  • alpha: relaxation, creativity, visualization

  • theta: meditation, memory, intuition

  • delta: healing, sleep, detached awareness

Gamma and beta are faster brain waves, and alpha, theta, and delta are slower brain waves. In general, faster brain waves are associated with focus, thinking, and awareness, and slower brain waves are associated with relaxation, meditation, and deep sleep.

When people have cognitive problems, such as chemo brain, their brain wave patterns can become disordered, which can lead to unhealthy brain biological activity and behaviors. For example, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have higher-than-average slower brain wave activity, which can cause symptoms like mental fogginess, daydreaming, and trouble focusing. People with anxiety disorders often have higher-than-average faster brain wave activity, which can make them feel panicky and on edge.

Neurofeedback can help restore order to brain wave activity, which can help ease symptoms.


About the study

Earlier studies have suggested that neurofeedback can improve attention and cognitive function. In this study, the researchers wanted to see if neurofeedback could help ease chemo brain in people who had received chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The study included nine women between the ages of 21 and 65 who had completed chemotherapy for breast cancer at least one year before joining the study. None of the women had taken hormonal therapy, which also has been linked to cognitive problems. All the women had complained of chemo brain.

The researchers used standard tests to measure the women’s cognitive function. The women also filled out a survey on the cognitive symptoms they were having. The researchers took two baseline neurofeedback readings, one with the women’s eyes open and one with their eyes shut. The researchers compared these baseline readings with readings from healthy adult brains and found each woman had abnormal brain wave activity.

The women then completed 18 30-minute neurofeedback training sessions, scheduled for three sessions a week during a six-week period. During the training sessions, the researchers placed sensors on the women’s scalps and earlobes to monitor their brain wave activity. The women looked at a computer screen that displayed their brain wave activity as different colored bar graphs. The researchers told the women their goal was to increase or decrease specific brain wave activity to turn each bar green. The women got audio and visual cues when they met goals.

All the women completed all 18 training sessions, but only some of them completed the sessions in six weeks:

  • three women completed the training in six weeks

  • one woman completed the training in seven weeks

  • two women completed the training in eight weeks

  • two women completed the training in nine weeks

  • one woman completed the training in 22 weeks

After the women completed the training, the researchers took another neurofeedback reading.

The researchers found that brain wave activity was nearly normal in seven women and was much improved in the other two women.

Cognitive testing after the training showed that the women had improved in several areas:

  • information processing

  • sustained visual attention

  • executive set shifting (the ability to unconsciously shift attention from one task to another)

“The history of neurofeedback shows that it’s helpful for a whole range of disorders and symptoms,” lead researcher Stephen Sideroff, PhD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement. “This study was an opportunity for seeing whether neurofeedback is something that could be helpful with chemo brain.”

Dr. Sideroff has used neurofeedback training with patients for more than 20 years. He said the study’s results were strong enough to support further research into whether neurofeedback is an effective approach for addressing chemo brain and determining the ideal protocols for conducting neurofeedback training sessions.


What this means for you

This study was very small, but it offers encouraging news for anyone experiencing chemo brain.

Still, there are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering trying neurofeedback:

  • More research is needed to understand exactly how doctors should conduct neurofeedback training sessions to ease chemo brain.

  • Although neurofeedback is safe and non-invasive, some studies have shown that the technique is just as effective as a placebo procedure — a procedure that appears similar to neurofeedback, but does not actually offer neurofeedback therapy.

  • Neurofeedback training can be expensive and time-consuming. Many health insurance plans don’t cover neurofeedback and some plans cover it only for specific conditions.

  • You should receive neurofeedback therapy from a specially trained therapist. The Biofeedback Certification International Alliance offers a certificate to people who have completed specific education and training programs.

  • Some neurofeedback processes can only take place in a therapist’s office. If you want to continue to use neurofeedback on your own, it’s a good idea to ask if it’s possible.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

— Last updated on September 12, 2022, 11:13 PM

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