Evolutionary approach to return to health

Many  illness may be prevented or reversed when we life in harmony with our evolutionary origins such as diet, movement, and circadian rhythm. The focus is to teach skills and not pills; since, many medications have long term negative side affects. By applying behavioral life style changes that supports our evolutionary patterns, we may be able to prevent or even reverse numerous illnesses such as epilepsy, eczema, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, allergies, ADHD, depression, anxiety,  cancer, stress related symptoms.

Enjoy the wide ranging lecture presented at the 2012 meeting of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research.

A historical perspective of neurofeedback: Video interview by Larrry Berkelhammer of Erik Peper

Dr. Erik Peper is interviewed by Dr. Larry Berkelhammer about the research he did in the late 60s and early 70s on EEG alpha training. He describes how he learned to turn off alpha brain rhythms in one hemisphere and turn them on in the other.
Neurofeedback equipment allows researchers and clinicians to get extremely useful feedback, allowing people who are hooked up to get very good at identifying their own brain rhythms and to alter them at will. This can potentially allow us to re-train our brains. Dr. Peper talks about how the real gift of science is about being open to explore rather than to assume our beliefs are factual. Science is about curiosity, experimentation, and exploration. In studying people with cancer and other diseases it is vital that we study more than just pathology–we need to study those individuals who are the outliers, that is, those who recovered against all odds–let’s see what they did to mobilize their health.


Support Healthy Brain Development*

Factors that support brain development and contribute to the possible development of ADD/ADHD is the focus of  my recently article, Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, published in Psychophysiology Today,9(1), 4-15. The article takes an evolutionary perspective of development and  suggests that our lifestyle interacting with the digital devices has implications for our health.  This blog extracts some parts of the published article. For the complete article with references see: http://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/support-healthy-brain-development-psychophysiology-today.pdf

In class, he fidgets, every auditory and visual stimulus distracts him– he gets up, talks to other students and disrupts the class. Nothing seems to hold his attention, he looks at the page and moments later turns around and disturbs the boy behind him. At home, he grabs his food and leaves the table. He is continuously distracted. The only thing that seems to capture his attention is his computer games.

ADD/ADHD has become an epidemic in the last 30 years. Now one in seven boys by the time they reach the age of 18 have received this diagnosis according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as shown in Figure 1.

figure 1

Figure 1. Rate of office-based visits per 1000 US population aged 5 through 18 with diagnosis (Dx) of ADHD and rate of use of medication (Rx) for boys and girls. Redrawn from: Sclar, D. A., Robison, L. M., Bowen, K. A., Schmidt, J. M., Castillo, L. V., & Oganov, A. M. (2012). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder among Children and Adolescents in the United States Trend in Diagnosis and Use of Pharmacotherapy by Gender. Clinical pediatrics, 51(6), 584-589.

The increase in ADD/ ADHD diagnoses cannot be explained by genetics alone. It may depend upon the interaction of genetics and the environment. It may develop into a disorder as a result of disrespecting and not understanding our evolutionary background during our development. We attempt remedy them with medications (e.g., Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin) that provide an 8 billion dollar revenue stream for pharmaceutical companies. Yet, there is little or no evidence of long term benefits. Self-mastery approaches such as Neurofeedback have demonstrated long term benefits in improving reading, writing, and mathematical scores as well as decreasing impulsive behavior. Neurofeedback training teaches children how to control their brain function.

Our modern lifestyle has compromised the healthy development of the brain and behavior. To prevent this we need to support those factors  that during the course of evolution increased survival, reproductive fitness and promoted healthy brains.

1) Breast feed children at least for one year and concurrently introduce new foods slowly after 6 or 8 months to reduce the risk of developing food allergies.

2) Respect the importance of face-to-face contact to provide safety, develop empathy and nurture social connection.

3) Encourage motor development such as crawling, playing in nature, and physical movement that occurs while playing games support brain development instead sitting and being entertained by smartphones, computers, tablets or TV screens. Physical movement during play– without being distracted by the overwhelming rapid changing stimuli shown on LED and TV screens–is necessary for brain development.

4) Reestablish circadian (daily) rhythms. Until the 19th century our biological and activity rhythms were controlled by natural light. It is hard to imagine not having light at night to read. When the sun went down, we went to sleep. Light not only illuminates, it affects our physiology by regulating our biological rhythms by blocking melatonin production which interferes with sleep.

5. Support touch and movement with vision and sound to develop the brain. During the first years of life, the baby/toddler integrates the visual and auditory world with touch and movement. Motor development is the underpinning of brain development..

6. Provide constancy and reduce novelty. When reading a bedtime story, the child wants to hear the same story again and again. If part of the story is skipped, the child interrupts and reminds us to read correctly. When the child is stressed, it wants to hear a past story for comfort and safety. Repetition while feeling safe allows memory to create appropriate neural connections. Neural growth depends upon the appropriate level and type of stimuli.Too few stimuli hinders brain development and too many novel stimuli may decrease brain development.

7. Limit hours of watching or playing computer games that trigger orienting and activation. The rapidly changing visual stimuli from these screens evokes the biological reflexes to attend– there is something new and it could be safe, dangerous or life threatening. The physiological processes and the important implications for health and illness have been elucidated by the polyvagal theory developed by Professor Stephen Porges.

Slide1 Over-stimulation with digital devices has been associated with impaired learning and decreased ability to self-regulate. The flood of novel visual and auditory stimuli trains the brain to react, to react again, and again. The ongoing external novelty captures the child’s attention, instead of directing attention from within.

8. Provide face to face safety as infants begin to explore the world. In the last 50 years we have radically increased the visual and auditory input to a developing baby following the concept of more is better. Babies are now exposed to visual and auditory stimuli which rapidly pass by them without repetition or the ability to interact  kinesthetically with them. Babies are often carried on the chest or in baby carriages/strollers facing forward- leading the charge into the unknown–instead of receiving face-to-face reassurance from the parent, touching the parent, or hiding behind the parent for safety.

baby TV carriage and on chest

In a study of 2722 observations of parent-child pairs by developmental psychologist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, parents talked twice as much to their baby when it faced them than when the baby was facing forward in the stroller. The impact of stress was measured by the decrease in baby laughing. Babies who faced their mother/caretaker while being pushed laughed 90% more than those who faced forward. As babies become older they do want to face the environment as it is more interesting; however, when the infants feel overwhelmed or threatened there is an opportunity to automatically reconnect with the caretaker to feel safe.

In summary, do not park children in front of smart phones, tablets, computer games, and television screens that flood the auditory and visual senses without the ability to integrate the information through touch and movement. Although TV and computer games are superb baby sitters, it is not the same as interacting and playing with a baby and toddler to develop the appropriate motor and emotional control. Let’s create an environment that is in harmony with our evolutionary background–An environment where infants play interactively with objects, explore nature and have face-to-face contact with their caregiver.

Even if the initial conditions during growing up were less than optimum, the brain can change—a process known as neuroplasticity. Thus, nurture inner directed attention by having the child develop skill mastery. Learning these skills can include neurofeedback training, back-to-nature explorations, learning to play a musical instrument, practicing a sport or martial art technique, or participating in yoga and meditation. These and many other practices will change the neural structure: it is never too late to learn, change, and optimize health.

To view or download the whole article with references: http://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/support-healthy-brain-development-psychophysiology-today.pdf

*I thank Drs. Stephen Porges, Linda Thompson, Michael Thompson, Monika Fuhs, and Annette Booiman for their constructive feedback.

Epilepsy: New (old) treatment without drugs

Nothing is so hard as watching a child having a seizure.

           –Elizabeth A. Thiele, MD, PhD, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School

Until recently, when people asked me, “What would I suggest as a non-toxic/non-invasive biofeedback approach for the treatment of epilepsy?” I automatically replied, “A combination of neurofeedback, behavioral analysis treatment, respiration training, a low glycemic diet, and stress management and if these did not work, medications.” I have now changed my mind!

Epilepsy is diagnosed if the person has two or more seizures. About one to two percent of the population is diagnosed with epilepsy and it is the most common neurological illness in children. Medication is usually the initial treatment intervention; however, in about one third of the people, the seizures will still occur despite the medications. In some cases, people -often without the support of their neurologist/healthcare provider–will explore other treatment strategies such as diet, respiration training, neurofeedback, behavioral control, diet, or traditional Chinese medicine.

It is ironic that one of the tools to diagnose epilepsy is recording the electroencephalography (EEG)– brain waves–of the person after fasting while breathing quickly (hyperventilating). For some, the combination of low blood sugar and hyperventilation will evoke epileptic wave forms in their EEG and can trigger  seizures (hyperventilation when paired with low sugar levels tends to increase slow wave EEG which would promote seizure activity).
If hyperventilation and fluctuating blood sugar levels are contributing factors in triggering seizures, why not teach breathing control and diet control as the first non-toxic clinical intervention before medications are prescribed. This breathing approach has shown very promising clinical success.  (For more details  see the book, Fried, R. (1987). The Hyperventilation syndrome-Research and Clinical Treatment. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Self-management should be the first clinical intervention and not the last. Similarly, neurofeedback– brain wave biofeedback–is another proven approach to reduce seizures. This approach was developed by Professor Maurice B. Sterman at UCLA and was based upon animal studies. He demonstrated that cats who were trained to increase sensory motor rhythm (SMR) in their EEG  could postpone seizure onset when exposed to a neurotoxin that induced seizures. He then demonstrated that human beings with epilepsy could equally learn to control their EEG patterns and inhibit seizures. This approach, just as the breathing approach, is non-toxic and reduces seizures.

Underlying both these approaches is the concept of behavioral analysis to identify and interrupt the  chained behavior that leads to a seizure. Namely, a stimulus (internal or external) triggers a cascading chain of neurological processes that eventually results in a seizure. Thus, if the person learns to identify and interrupt/divert this cascading chain, the seizure does not occur. From this perspective, respiration training and neurofeedback could be interpreted to interrupt this cascading process. Behavioral analyses includes all behaviors (movement, facial expressions, emotions, etc) which can be identified and then interrupted. As professors Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundgren from Uppsala University in Sweden state, The behavior technology of seizure control provides low-cost, drug free treatment alternative for individual already suffering from seizures and the stigmatization of epilepsy.

Until recently, I would automatically suggest that people explore these self-control strategies as the first intervention in treatment of epilepsy and only medication for the last resort. Now, I have changed my mind. I suggest the ketogenic diet as the first step for the treatment of epilepsy in conjunction with the self-regulation strategies—medication should only be used if the previous strategies were unsuccessful.

A ketogenic diet  has a 90% clinical success rates  in children–even in patients with refractory seizures. This diet stabilizes blood sugar levels  and is very low on simple carbohydrates, high in fat,  some protein, and lots of vegetables (a ratio of 4 grams of fat to 1 gram of carbohydrates and protein). In adults, the success rates drops to about 50%. The lower success rate may be the result of   the challenges in implementing these self-regulatory diet approaches. As Elizabeth A. Thiele, MD, PhD, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School points out, dietary therapy is the most effective known treatment strategy for epilepsy. Even though, ketogenic diet is the most effective therapy, it is less likely to be prescribed than medications—there are no financial incentives; there are, however, many financial incentives for prescribing pharmaceuticals.

These lifestyle changes are very challenging to implement. They need to be taught and socially supported. Just telling people what to do does not often work. It is similar to learning to play a musical instrument.  The person needs step by step coaching and social support which is an intensive educational approach. To learn more about the research underlying the ketogenic diet as the first level of intervention for epilepsy, watch Professor Thiele’s presentation from the 2012 Ancentral Health Symposium, Dietary Therapy: Role in Epilepsy and Beyond.

There is hope for neurological recovery: Redirect behaviors of habit

Although many neurological disorders appear to be structural and the result of neurological dysfunctioning, recent research suggests that there is much more hope that people can learn to restore function.  Even people affected by  stroke, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy can regain function.  The observed symptoms and dysfunctional movement patterns can be understood as the nervous system’s best strategy to solve a problem at that moment and is the best response the person could perform under the circumstances.  For example in the case of  stroke, a spastic movement is the best solution that becomes a conditioned habit pattern. It may occur because the person tries to achieve the previous motor behaviors which  can no longer be performed because of the neurological damage. With cerebral palsy, the initial damage at birth changed the motor patterns as the child attempted to walk.  While in cases of epilepsy, the spreading of the seizure across the brain is not inhibited. Despite the neurological damage, improvement is possible as demonstrated by Jill Bolte Taylor’s presentation of her experience and  remarkable recovery from a left hemisphere stroke.

Application to stroke rehabilitation

A useful premise underlying neural regeneration and development is that it healing follows developmental movement sequences which cannot be skipped.  Thus after a neurological injury such as a stroke, the movement sequence needs to be re-integrated. It is not relearning what was lost; it is learning the new skills as if the skills are being learned for the first time. This includes an attitude of acceptance, non judgment, fun, play and exploration concurrent with many, many, many training practices until the skills are mastered.  Thus stroke patients sitting in wheelchairs may try to repeat movements which were present before the stroke but which are now beyond the biological developmental stage due to the neural damage. The person instead needs to learn anew the movement sequences that a baby mastered (lifting the head, rolling over, cross crawl moment, crawling, etc). This takes lots of practice. Compare the many hours a baby/child practices in order to be able to stand to the limited time people with strokemay spent performing their prescriptive exercises.  Thus, children usually show mastery while many people with stroke demonstrate limited improvement.  It is practice, practice and practice; it is not mindless practice, it is practice with awareness and intent.

Dysfunctional patterns can be understood as over learned conditioned chained behaviors which occur automatically. A superb explanation of this process is described by Charles Duhigg in his book, The power of habit-Why we do what we do in life and business. Clinical success is to identify these chains and the sequential steps  and then teach the person to redirect the behavior.

Application to epilepsy

Some people with epilepsy can learn to identify the initiation of the seizure and then interrupt the cascading sequence by doing something different. In this way the seizure process is interrupted and no seizure will occur.  For example, one man hyperventilated before a grand mal seizure. When the therapist taught him to become aware and  change his breathing pattern each he began to hyperventilate, his epileptic seizures did not occur. Similarly, a young woman with epilepsy turned her head to the right and slightly lifted her chin upward just before an absence seizure occurred. Teaching her to interrupt her initial head movement and looking straight ahead while slowly exhaling inhibited her seizures. The efficacy of this type of behavioral analysis for the treatment of epilepsy has been described by psychologists, Joanne Dahl, PhD and Tobias Lundgren, PhD in their superb article, Behavior analysis of epilepsy: Conditioning mechanisms, behavior technology and the contribution of ACT.

Another powerful treatment approach to treat seizures was developed by M. B. Sterman, Ph.D. at UCLA who taught people with epilepsy to control their own electrical activity of their brain with neurofeedback. Many people benefited from neurofeedback training and significantly reduced their seizures.

Application to cerebral palsy

To appreciate the power of interrupting the chained behaviors and the possibility that there is hope for people with cerebral palsy. This is illustrated in the remarkable TEDx Winnepeg talk, Baby brains DO recover, but habit hides it, by Karen Pape, MD.