Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have ended up in intensive care as a result of COVID-19. After a year of coping with the pandemic, many people, whether they are care providers or patients, are at heightened risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their experiences.
Normally, when your brain identifies some type of threat, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. This prepares your body to respond and keep you safe. Once the danger has passed, another part of your brain tells your body to ‘stand down’.
With PTSD, the brain gets stuck in danger mode. The part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response becomes hyper-sensitive, while the calming area does not work well enough.
This causes a debilitating mental health condition. People with PTSD can experience intense effects, long after the event itself. This can include flashbacks and nightmares, feelings of sadness, fear or anger, detachment from others, and strong negative reactions to trauma-related stimuli.
Now, Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University researchers have shown that “brain training” could be an effective treatment for PTSD. Also known as neurofeedback, the treatment can help re-establish healthy brain connections.
“Brain connectivity involves different parts of the brain communicating with each other and helps to regulate states of consciousness, thought, mood and emotion,” explained Dr. Ruth Lanius, professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, scientist at Lawson and psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre.
“Individuals with PTSD tend to have disrupted patterns of brain connectivity but our research suggests they can exercise their brains to restore patterns to a healthy balance.”
Brain training involves exercises where individuals find their own personalized strategies to regulate their brain activity. To do this, participants have sensors placed on their scalp. Using electroencephalography (EEG), researchers measure participant’s brain activity which is then visualized on screen as a simple image. As brain waves change, so does the image.
In this instance, 72 participants took part in the study, half with PTSD and half as healthy controls. Of those with PTSD, 18 received weekly neurofeedback treatment over 20 weeks.
During treatment, brain activity appeared as a still cartoon or a distorted picture. Participants were asked to reduce the intensity of the brain’s dominant brain wave – the alpha rhythm. When reduced, the cartoon started playing or the picture started becoming clearer.
“Participants were not instructed on how to reduce the alpha rhythm. Rather, each individual figured out their own way to do so,” noted Lanius. “For example, individuals reported letting their mind wander, thinking about positive things or concentrating their attention.”
In those with PTSD, this treatment decreased their symptoms, appearing to normalize and rebalance connectivity issues. Three months later, 61% of participants no longer met the definition for PTSD. This is comparable to existing gold standard therapies.
The research team also took brain scans of participants before and after the trial. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, these scans showed positive changes in brain connectivity following neurofeedback treatment. This is a positive outcome that, with further study, could have a number or clinical applications.
“Neurofeedback could offer an accessible and effective treatment option for individuals with PTSD,” said Lanius. “The treatment is easily scalable for implementation in rural areas and even at home.”