Posted April 2, 2013
Jaime A. Pineda, Ph.D., University of California at San Diego
Autism is a highly varied developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with high functioning autism (HFA) exhibit problems primarily in the social domain. Dr. Jaime A. Pineda with his co-investigator Dr. Ralph-Axel Mueller and graduate student Michael Datko from the University of California at San Diego were awarded a Fiscal Year 2009 Autism Research Program (ARP) Idea Award to test the efficacy of neurofeedback therapy and how it is implemented. The specific methodological approach is based on learning to control brain electrical oscillations related to the understanding of actions, emotional understanding, and empathy. Its effects occur rapidly compared to behavioral treatments and have very few side effects compared to pharmacological interventions.
A number of observations regarding EEG dysfunction in children on the autism spectrum have led several clinical practitioners over the past 20 years to use EEG-based interventions as a therapeutic strategy. Anecdotal reports and a few controlled scientific studies have suggested that neurofeedback approaches can lead to symptom improvement. That is, children with autism who were able to successfully reduce delta and theta power through neurofeedback therapy have shown improved cognitive flexibility, enhanced social and communicative skills, executive set-shifting functions, and a general decrease of theta power, all of which were maintained after one year post-treatment. However, practical issues have hampered the implementation of rigorous scientific studies and clinical trials.
Traditional use of neurofeedback training requires the need for many closely spaced clinical sessions but few parents or individual adults can bring their child to a practitioner's office for 2-4 weekly sessions of neurofeedback that can last for 20-40 weeks. This has led to many studies having employed only very small sample sizes.
The investigators, along with their collaborators Michael Linden, Ph.D., and Alan Lincoln, Ph.D., are pursuing several paths into neurofeedback research that include: (1) making neurofeedback training easier to use and available for at school or home use; (2) improving its efficacy, speed, and duration by combining with other new and developing approaches, such as the use of oxytocin to enhance social behavior, memory consolidation to speed training, transcranial direct current stimulation to facilitate new learning, or other potentially reliable methods; and (3) testing the feasibility of utilizing neurofeedback protocols with lower-functioning autistic (LFA) children. To that end, the researchers recently presented data, at Neuroscience 2012 in New Orleans, from a group of six LFA children indicating that this approach can indeed be effective for some types of ASD.
Neurofeedback is an alternative and non-pharmacological approach about which there has been substantial skepticism in the scientific community. This type of innovative, paradigm-shifting study is the heart of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs Autism Research Program focus. Results from this study may allow treatments that are non-invasive and non-pharmacological in nature and that show potential benefits for people living with ASD.
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