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Collecting brain activity data measured by the electrode cap.

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Children and Mental Illness: Innovative Treatment

Gray Matters is Changing How We Help Our Kids

Article by Robin Moyer Chung

Photography by John Videler

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

Few things are more insufferable than a new parent with opinions about raising a child. One of my favorites is “I will never Ferberize my child.” Amazing how six months of sleep deprivation sways a conviction.

Another biggie is “I will never put my child on medication.” Uhh… if your child has ADHD, anxiety and/or depression, if he/she is failing classes and unable to make friends, I have news: love and therapy are great. But you’ll want a prescription.

Unfortunately, finding the right medication is tricky. Kids swallow pill after pill while parents monitor any alleviation of distress. For weeks, months, even years, they hope to find something to correct signs of their child’s diagnosis while not even knowing if the diagnosis is accurate. The number of unknowns can be staggering, depleting.

Here’s the good news: we’re on the crest of a sea change in the way our children - and ourselves - are diagnosed and treated for mental afflictions, ranging from ADHD and depression to PTSD and addiction. These psychological conditions can be accurately pinpointed, eliminating most of the need for trial and error in determining the correct medication. Even better, however, one can treat these afflictions medication-free with brain imaging and neurofeedback. While it’s not fairy dust nor a magic pill, it’s part of a fascinating and effective new healing process.

Anthony Silver, a psychotherapist with board certifications in both neurofeedback and functional brain imaging and one of only around 100 clinicians in the U.S. awarded Diplomate status by the International qEEG Certification Board, founded Gray Matters (GM) on the premise that “training” one’s brain activity to re-regulate itself should mitigate some mental afflictions.

A Greenwich couple, Jane and Ted, allowed me to follow their son Nick’s* experience with GM. Nick had been diagnosed with ADHD, had tried medication and refused to go to therapy. He had frequent tantrums in which he swore and threatened self-harm.

At the first meeting, Anthony placed an electrode cap on Nick’s head. This cloth cap with a rainbow of wires streaming from the back recorded the electrical activity from Nick’s brain at the scalp (EEG.) As Nick sat quietly, a series of jagged horizontal lines moved across Anthony’s computer screen. A computer process compared these recordings to an extensive database of “normal” brain activity for people of all ages, used by hospitals and clinicians all over the world.

After 20 minutes, Anthony had collected enough data to produce a slew of charts I couldn’t begin to understand. However, I did understand the illustrations: different views of the brain (top, cross-section, etc.) with colors to denote activity; green for “normal” with shades of blue, yellow, orange, and red for increasing degrees of deviation and arousal. Pages of images showed activity in each area of Nick’s brain with easy-to-read stylized illustrations.

The EEG biomarker for ADHD is frontal slowing, or reduced activity in the frontal lobes (which is why a stimulant is effective). However, Nick’s data showed over-arousal, indicating anxiety and dis-regulation.

Anthony explains, “Many of the children we see have tried a series of stimulant medications before turning to us for a qEEG… Difficulties commonly described as ADHD can be caused by an almost infinite number of issues, very few of which are improved by ADHD medications. Brain imaging easily identifies these differences and the root cause of the difficulties, clarifying treatment.”

He recommends a course of neurofeedback sessions to, literally, re-wire the brain. A “session” is watching 40 minutes of a movie while wearing an electrode cap. The GM office has six individual movie-watching cubicles and a large selection of movies and TV shows. 

As Nick watches the movie we notice the screen dim and lighten. When the brain activity shows improved function, the screen brightens, giving the brain a “reward” for moving in the right direction. Unlike muscle, which takes a while to build and can be lost without exercise, the brain builds quickly and adapts to what it’s doing. The brain, literally, will change in the direction in which it is rewarded. “Neurofeedback uses our understanding of brain plasticity to directly train the brain to improve function,” states Anthony.

He shares remarkable success stories:

  • A pilot from the Iraqi war still suffered from PTSD over a decade after he had returned home. Anthony explains, “Sometimes people are not ready or able to talk.” He targeted the over-aroused areas of the soldier’s brain. During the soldier’s sessions, the screen brightened as he calmed. Neurofeedback eventually reduced the veteran’s acute anxiety until he was able to discuss his experiences and feelings. “[Neurofeedback] is not intrusive – it normalizes brain function to the point where they’re able to discuss their feelings in a way they couldn’t before, so a therapist can work with them more effectively.”
  • A two-year old boy with a speech delay was erroneously diagnosed with autism.** With the correct diagnosis from GM (later supported by clinicians at Yale) and three months of sessions he was chatting and smiling. 
  • A girl with a family history of depression had been on every conceivable type of anti-depressant and mood stabilizer. Anthony discovered her issues would not be solved by medication and she is now improving with neurofeedback.

“I don’t want to make crazy claims,” Anthony states. “Obviously children will develop at their own pace and with different interventions, but we believe we often play a large role in their improvement.” 

Regardless, the statistics aren’t so crazy. Of the 3,000 individuals who have done neurofeedback with GM:

  • Approx. 90% of GM clients on medication were able to come off medication successfully and are doing better than they were on meds. 
  • Of the GM patients who were considering a prescription, approx. 90% no longer feel the need for medication.

As for Nick, “He used to have two or three meltdowns every day,” Ted explained, “Suddenly it was only once a week, then less.” Nick’s mood lightened and he showed more commitment to finishing homework and other chores.

Granted, several things changed during these weeks: help from Nick’s teachers and guidance counselor, his parents reactions to his tirades, general maturity. However Jane and Ted consider GM a key player in Nick’s progress. 

They’ve recommended GM to friends, three of whom are now patients. All of them are combining neurofeedback with other forms of recovery, i.e. therapy, medication, exercise. Though it’s tough to extrapolate what’s helping most, all agree they’re happier and more energetic than when they began. As one of them said, “I feel a heck of a lot better. I believe in it.”

The medical community is trying to replace the potentially dangerous “trial and error” method of finding the correct medicine, from parmacogenomics (DNA testing) to observing patient characteristics. For mental illness, brain imaging and neurofeedback may be exactly the solution we need.

*Names changed.

**There are other therapists claiming to use QEEG diagnostically, and neurofeedback for treatment. Anthony warns that the field is still quite unregulated, with a huge variability in the quality of treatment. Having the right board certifications helps to identify qualified clinicians.

Gray Matters

  • Anthony places a cloth "electrode" cap onto the patient.
  • Anthony places a cloth "electrode" cap onto the patient.
  • Collecting brain activity data measured by the electrode cap.
  • Collecting brain activity data measured by the electrode cap.
  • Anthony Silver.
  • Movie cubicles for neurofeedback.
  • Movie cubicles for neurofeedback.