Can Computers Train the Brain to Cure ADHD?

It sound like science fiction, but scientists have been testing computerized methods to train the brains of ADHD people with the goal of reducing both ADHD symptoms and cognitive deficits such as difficulties with memory or attention.   Two main approaches have been used: cognitive training and neurofeedback.

Cognitive training methods ask patients to practice tasks aimed at teaching specific skills such as retaining information in memory or inhibiting impulsive responses.  Currently, results from ADHD brain studies suggests that the ADHD brain is not very different from the non-ADHD brain, but that ADHD leads to small differences in the structure, organization and functioning of the brain.  The idea behind cognitive training is that the brain can be reorganized to accomplish tasks through a structured learning process.  Cognitive retraining helps people who have suffered brain damage so was logical to think it might help the types of brain differences seen in ADHD people.  Several software packages have been created to deliver cognitive training sessions to ADHD people.  You can read more about these methods here: Sonuga-Barke, E., D. Brandeis, et al. (2014). “Computer-based cognitive training for ADHD: a review of current evidence.” Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23(4): 807-824.

Neurofeedback was applied to ADHD after it had been observed, in many studies, that people with ADHD have unusual brain waves as measured by the electroencephalogram (EEG).  We believe that these unusual brain waves are caused by the different way that the ADHD brain processes information.  Because these differences lead to problems with memory, attention, inhibiting responses and other areas of cognition and behavior, it was believed that normalizing the brain waves might reduce ADHD symptoms.  In a neurofeedback session, patients sit with a computer that reads their brain waves via wires connected to their head.  The patient is asked to do a task on the computer that is known to produce a specific type of brain wave.   The computer gives feedback via sound or a visual on the computer screen that tells the patient how ‘normal’ their brain waves are.  By modifying their behavior, patients learn to change their brain waves.  The method is called neurofeedback because it gives patients direct feedback about how their brains are processing information.

Both cognitive training and neurofeedback have been extensively studied.  If you’ve been reading my blogs about ADHD, you know that I play by the rules of evidenced based medicine.  My view is that the only way to be sure that a treatment  ‘works’ is to see what researchers have published in scientific journals.   The highest level of evidence is a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials.   For my lay readers, that means that that many rigorous studies have been conducted and summarized with a sophisticated mathematical method.   Although both cognitive training and neurofeedback are rational methods based on good science, meta-analyses suggest that they are not helpful for reducing ADHD symptoms.  They may be helpful for specific problems such as problems with memory, but more work is needed to be certain if that is true.

The future may bring better news about these methods if they are modified and become more effective.  You can learn more about non-pharmacologic treatments for ADHD from a book I recently edited: Faraone, S. V. & Antshel, K. M. (2014). ADHD: Non-Pharmacologic Interventions. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, xiii-xiv.


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