Neurotherapy Treatment for Addiction

Human brain, illustration

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It's not uncommon for people with addiction to relapse. In some cases, they are in and out of rehabilitation programs for years without effectively ending their addiction. Neurotherapy is an approach that may help successfully end this cycle. 

What Is Neurotherapy?

Neurotherapy, also known as neurofeedback or biofeedback, uses a computer-based system to map a person's brain waves. This map provides audio or video feedback that the person uses to learn how to manipulate their brain waves, changing the brain's activity and improving their ability to self-regulate.

Unlike some of the other strategies used to treat addiction, neurotherapy retrains the brain. The goal is to change brain networks, ultimately changing behavior. This treatment is also sometimes used for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

During neurotherapy, the patient watches their brainwaves on a computer screen. These brainwaves are recorded using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which involves attaching electrodes to the scalp to detect the brain's electrical activity. The patient is then taught how to control and change the brain's waves, improving brain function.

Typically, neurotherapy is combined with other addiction therapies as opposed to being a standalone treatment. It is used primarily for patients with additional mental health needs, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

How Neurotherapy Works

Neurotherapy works, in part, by reducing a person's reaction to emotions or stress. It also provides a clearer mindset, which is helpful for making more positive decisions. This includes choosing to continue to abstain from an addictive substance or behavior.

Research shows that neurotherapy offers several other benefits. It reduces the desire for the addictive substance and provides relief from withdrawal cravings. It also helps with somatic symptoms such as pain and fatigue, while improving mental health.

The more benefits a specific therapy offers and the more ways it can help treat or ease an addiction, the greater the chances of a successful recovery, because addiction is sometimes hard to treat.

What to Expect During Neurotherapy

Before doing neurotherapy, the therapist may do an electroencephalograph or EEG to measure your brainwave activity. This involves attaching sensors to your head and is a painless procedure.

Next, you play computerized games, with the computer feeding you information both visually (through sight) and auditorily (through sound). You are taught how to use your brainwave patterns to perform the actions requested by the game.

The techniques learned in neurotherapy can also be practiced when you're engaged in normal, everyday activities at work, school, or home. This helps you learn how to get your brain to respond in a healthier way in the environments where you spend most of your time, and can reduce addictive behavior and lessen the risk of relapse.

What Research Says About Neurotherapy for Addiction

Many studies have found that neurotherapy can be effective when treating various types of addiction.

For example, a 2013 study involved 20 patients who were opiate dependent. Patients who engaged in neurotherapy in addition to their regular addiction treatment reported less desire to use opioids and fewer withdrawal cravings. They also had greater improvements in their mental health, specifically in relation to anxiety and depression.

A 2018 study found positive results when neurofeedback was used for food addiction. This piece of research involved 21 patients; half of them engaged in six sessions of neurotherapy, and the rest received sham (fake) treatments. The neurotherapy group had decreased food cravings when compared to the sham treatment group.

A comprehensive review published in 2016 adds that neurofeedback has also been found to offer positive results for people who are addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and computer games.

Potential Neurotherapy Cons

While neurotherapy may help treat addiction, there are also a few cons associated with this approach. They include:

  • It is an expensive treatment option
  • It can be time-consuming
  • It may take months to work
  • Its benefits don't last long-term

Factors such as these can make neurotherapy less appealing than other treatment methods that may be cheaper and work faster.

Neurotherapy vs. Other Addiction Therapies

Of course, neurotherapy isn't the only treatment option for addiction. There are many different programs and therapeutic methods from which to choose. Which one is best?

For some people, medication may be used to assist with recovery, such as when the addiction co-exists with a mental health disorder. The issue with this approach is that once the medication is no longer being taken, whether due to treatment ending or the person stopping on their own, relapse can occur.

Conversely, neurotherapy alters brain function. This allows the person with addiction to stay substance-free beyond the initial rehabilitation stages. It teaches them how to respond to triggers without relying on continued use of medications or other devices.

This makes neurotherapy a valuable part of a comprehensive approach to therapy, working alongside medication, support groups, or talk therapy. Research shows that combining therapies can improve neurofeedback's results.

How to Find Neurotherapy Treatment

Your doctor may be able to refer you to a local neurotherapist. It is also helpful to check with your health insurance company to see if your policy will cover any or all of this addiction treatment. If so, you may have to use a specific neurotherapy provider.

The International Society for Neuroregulation & Research also offers an online directory that you can search based on your geographical location or the provider's area of specialty (addictions and substance abuse). Doing a search for "neurotherapy near me" or "online neurotherapy" may offer additional results.

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