Neurofeedback May Help Cure Treatment-resistant Depression

Living with a mental disorder like depression can be awfully debilitating. However, living with depression that does not respond to treatment can be comparatively more dangerous. Such a condition, commonly known as treatment-resistant depression (TRD), affects about one-third of those with depression. People suffering from TRD could work doggedly toward recovery from depressive symptoms for months or years without any sign of relief even after the multiple rounds of treatment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide that affects more than 300 million individuals across the globe. Despite the considerable progress made in the field of depression treatment, there has been no headway in addressing TRD. The failure of different types of antidepressants in alleviating depressive symptoms in the case of TRD can prove quite demotivating.

With as many as 100 million individuals grappling with TRD worldwide, any attempts to attain functional recovery from this problem may seem elusive. However, a recent Korean study has displayed that neurofeedback has the capability to improve both individual symptoms and the overall recovery in TRD.

Neurofeedback changes unique brainwaves

The problem of TRD remains enigmatic and incomprehensible for mental health experts. Some consider that TRD may be at play when a patient does not respond to two different classes of antidepressants, others necessitate depression to be resistant to at least four different treatments for a TRD diagnosis. Regardless, individuals with TRD are left with limited options and often struggle with depression treatment. However, a recent study suggests that neurofeedback offers a viable treatment when patients concentrate on modifying their brainwave patterns along with antidepressants.

Prior studies have showcased that different moods are associated with distinct brainwaves. Based on this conclusion, the study enrolled 12 patients with TRD and 12 controls with major depressive disorder (MDD) who displayed residual symptoms and functional impairment after undergoing antidepressant treatment. The participants were asked to change the levels of only those brain waves displayed on the computer screen.

For the study, the patients underwent a 12-week regular session to learn the art of changing their brainwaves in response to audio and visual signals under beta/sensorimotor rhythm and alpha/theta training. In addition, their psychological progress was measured via standard questionnaires at weeks 1, 4 and 12 that entailed factors, such as interpersonal relationships, ability to work and family life.

The key findings of the study are as follows:

  • Eight of the 12 participants who underwent neurofeedback responded to treatment, while five of them improved enough to meet the criteria for remission.
  • The control group did not exhibit any improvement from baseline after 12 weeks.

According to Henricus Ruhe, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry Raboudumc, Nijmegen, “This is a very interesting study targeting remaining depressive symptoms in patients who insufficiently responded to previous treatment trials of antidepressants. Although the number of included patients are small we should consider this pilot study as promising and suggesting that alternative approaches might be beneficial in nonresponding depressed patients.”

Given the fact that neurofeedback has no side effects, Professor Eun-Jin Cheon of Yeungnam University Hospital, South Korea suggests that it can improve the symptoms of patients with TRD and empower them to lead successful lives as a complementary treatment. In addition, this intervention approach could also improve self-efficacy by active participation and voluntary treatment.

Although the study sample size was relatively small, the new approach has the potential to treat patients with TRD who are otherwise considered an untreatable group of patients. Only further research will determine if this approach is viable for clinical treatment and inclusion in the future guidelines for treating depression.

Depression does not define an individual

TRD can leave anybody feeling discouraged; however, the failure of multiple treatments does not necessarily mean that an individual is in a deadlock. Because different patients respond to treatment differently, it is important to find the right approach with the collaboration of health care providers. Besides accessing an effective treatment, one should share his or her inhibitions and fears with an expert.

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