Peak Neurofitness and Other Mind Matters
(updated December 12, 2013)
These blog posts represent a journal written by Polly Elmore as she experienced neurofeedback training.
1. Finding mental fitness with neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is an exercise program for the brain, similar to physical exercise for the body – with similar results. Just as regular exercise can train your body to function more efficiently and easily, neurofeedback can train your brain. And you start to feel better and happier.
Why I started neurofeedback – looking for mental stimulation
Blue brainI started a regular exercise program 18 months ago, six months after my husband’s retirement. When he retired, we moved from Northern Virginia back to Richmond, Virginia. I still did some consulting, but it wasn’t the same living 100 miles from my clients, business associates and friends of 20 years. I became bored, sluggish and listless.
I started exercising regularly to improve my health and well-being. Regular exercise helped me feel better, but I still lacked the mental stimulation I used to have when I was working full-time.
I reached a mental low in April 2013, when I suffered a 4-5 week spell of vertigo. I felt dizzy, fuzzy-brained and had problems concentrating. Also, as I approached age 70, I had noticed that my memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. I was wondering what I could do to improve my mental fitness.
About that time, a friend mentioned Cynde Margritz to me. Cynde is the neuroscientist who runs PeakNeurofitness, a service just outside Washington, DC, where she offers neurofeedback or “brain-training” for someone like me who feels her brain may not be firing on all six cylinders. About Cynde Margritz
Cynde, a former NASA scientist, founder and now CEO of Peak Neurofitness, does brain fitness training for government employees from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Federal Aviation Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the White House, the Department of State, and other government agencies. Cynde trains clients to have a faster, more agile, flexible, and powerful brain. You can review client stories on the client stories page.
Cynde and I talked. I did some research and decided I would sign up for the program.
2. Neurofeedback starts with a brain map (May 26)
Cynde Margritz’s Peak Neurofitness program starts with a brain map – referred to as a qEEG (quantitative electroencephalogram) – or an analysis of your brain waves. David A. Kaiser, PhD., of the Rochester Institute of Technology, has written a research paper on the qEEG technology, which has been studied for 75 years:
“… the electroencephalogram and its partner in force, the magnetoencephalogram, can detect changes in brain activity a thousand times faster than most biochemical indices, and they are not measures of cell metabolism but the summation of cortical postsynaptic potentials themselves, a distant eavesdrop on the brain’s inner workings (Lopes da Silva, 1991).”
pollyI drove up to Cynde’s office in Arlington, Virginia, for the brain map. Cynde placed a rubber cap on my head. The cap, which looks much like a swim cap, contained sensors which measured my brainwaves at 19 locations, corresponding to my specific brain functions. The process took about 15 to 20 minutes.
Results of the brain map showed a “fogging out” in the frontal memory hubs, where the slower brain waves were impeding clear thinking, and an excess of the faster beta waves on the right side of my brain, indicative of an overactivation of the nervous system and tendency for worry or nervousness (more about brain waves later). I also took a memory test, which showed a weakness in verbal memory. These test results correlated with the symptoms I had been feeling, specifically my difficulty focusing and my feelings of anxiety, which impeded me from taking on new tasks.
SETTING UP NEUROFEEDBACK REMOTELY
Then I returned home with my remote control neurofeedback package, which includes a little black box similar to a modem, two cords and some color-coded sensors and I downloaded BrainMaster software to make the connection on my computer. During our first remote session, Cynde reviewed my brain map with me, showing me color-coded charts. The map showed patterns of my brainwaves compared to a normative database and compared to my answers to the symptom questionnaire. Cynde also took into account the results of a lengthy and comprehensive intake process, where I was able to elaborate on exactly how I felt my brain was performing or not.
As I’ve said, the brain map analysis was surprisingly close to the symptoms I had reported. Wow!
3. First neurofeedback session – riding the low waves (June 7)
Before I started the neurofeedback program with Cynde Margritz, I was concerned that she might be zapping my brain with electrical impulses. I was relieved to find this was not the process.
EVALUATING MY RESPONSES TO NEUROFEEDBACK
Neurofeedback is a system that shows you on a computer screen how your brain waves are performing and coaches you to change your brain waves to an improved frequency. The process is non-invasive, much like biofeedback in that respect. It is simply a monitoring of your brain waves, with a beep sounding as feedback or reward when the desired frequency is attained.
For my first remote session, I sat at my computer and followed Cynde’s instructions via “Go to Meeting” to place a sensor on my head at the back right parietal area (shown in yellow in diagram). The sensor is a metal disk smaller than a dime. I attached the sensor to my scalp using a dab of white paste that looks and feels like the paste we all used in grade school. Then I attached two other sensors to my right ear.
You do not need to be a rocket scientist to accomplish this. Cynde is the lead ☺. She explained that this initial session was basically an evaluation of my responsiveness to neurofeedback. As with physical training, we started slowly with my brain training, using low frequency (12 to 15 hertz) lobeta, also known as Sensorimotor Rhythm (SMR) feedback.
I didn’t feel much during the session and the tracking graphs of my brain waves showed I was not overly sensitive to the process –– a good thing. Cynde said that meant I could tolerate 30 minutes of training every day.
Cynde recommends doing the brain training a minimum of twice a week and, ideally, every day. Brain training is like physical training – the more you do, the better and stronger you get. At this point, I didn’t feel confident enough to do the training on my own.
I feel I need to take time here to explain brain waves, which are the electrical charges created by our brain cells (neurons) to communicate with each other. Brain waves are measured in cycles per second – or hertz(hz). The lower the hz, the slower the brain activity.
There are five different types of brain waves; delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. Depending on what we are doing, we use all the brain wave types.
Delta are the slowest waves, which oscillate at 1-3 hz. They are indicative of sleep.
Alpha waves, which oscillate at 9 to 14 hz, are self-soothing brain waves which help you achieve a
calm, relaxed, but alert state.
Beta waves have three forms, low, beta, and high. The high range is from 15 to 20 hertz.
Beta waves are used for thinking and problem solving.
Lobeta waves, also referred to as SMR or sensorimotor rhythm, which oscillate around 14hz, are calming brain waves. They were first discovered while trying to prevent seizures in cats. Hibeta waves, above 20 Hz, usually reflect tension.
Gamma waves, which oscillate at 39 to 100 hz, reflect higher mental activity such as meditation.
4. Second neurofeedback session – Alpha lowers anxiety (June 12)
For my session the second week, Cynde changed the neurofeedback protocol to alpha training. She said
that memory can become hi-jacked by anxiety. Basically, the amygdala ( the part ofthe brain linked to emotion, processing of pheromones, aggression and emotional memories) goes into overdrive in its fight or flee mode and by-passes some of the memory centers as well as the prefrontal cortex, where higher order thinking occurs. She wanted to increase my alpha wave output to make sure this didn’t happen.
ALPHA WAVES REFLECT A RELAXED STATE
Alpha is a slower, self-soothing brain wave, which guides both mind and body into a more relaxed state and relieves stress. For this session, the sensor remained in the same place on my head, while only the protocol changed.
“We do calming on the right side of the brain and activating on the left,” Cynde explained. After the session I felt calmer, less anxious. Or maybe I just felt more confident in the process. After this session, I practiced once on my own.
5. Third neurofeedback session – starting the real workout (June 20)
By our third session together, coach Cynde Margritz said I was ready for the real workout. We were going to start a protocol to increase my beta brain waves, which function at 15 to 20 hz, and reduce the slower delta (1-3 hz), theta 4-8 hz) and alpha (9-14 hz) waves on the left side of my brain.
These slower waves were negatively impacting my memory, Cynde explained. “Any time you slow down the left hemisphere, it can lead to negative thinking and less motivation.”
TRAINING MY BETA WAVES FOR ACTION
I have done seven days of beta training – two together with Cynde online and five of those on my own. In the process, I’ve started to feel more positive and more motivated. Looking at the graphs which summarize my performance, I’ve seen my beta waves fluctuate from 6.43 to 20.34 microvolts up and down. Cynde explained that some of this is the result of muscle tension during the session, but it can also be due to the amount of stress or tension I’m feeling at the time of the session.
Cynde says my brain is building a new skill. The more I work at it, the better I’ll get. Like working with weights, you build up slowly and increase the weight as you get stronger. She says that the training may take 40 or 50 sessions.
I’m beginning to get the hang of this!
6. ON A CLEAR DAY….NEUROFEEDBACK HELPS REDUCE BRAIN FOG (JULY 19)
Over coffee at Starbucks, I was discussing my neurofeedback process with Kate Deaton, a business friend of mine. She is a leadership coach, occupational therapist and charter practitioner of the Examining Your Immunity to Change Process, who bases all her work on principles of neuroplasticity. “You’re on the cutting edge!” she said. I felt proud!
Other friends have been interested in my description of neurofeedback but seem to think I’m a little “loony” to be doing this. In answer to the skeptics, I say: “I’m not loony; I’m becoming more lucid!” Somewhere in the neurofeedback process, my brain fog has lifted. I can’t say just when it happened, but I can think more clearly.
I explained this to Kate, adding that it may be neurofeedback or it may be the placebo effect. She pointed out that maybe we should consider the placebo effect as a testament to the brain’s healing the body with the power of positive thinking and without medication.
7. Am I feeling better with neurofeedback? Yes, you beta! (June 20)
It’s my tenth session running beta brain wave reinforcement. I sit and watch the two bars on my computer screen pumping up, measuring my alpha waves (in blue) and my beta waves (in pink). And the reinforcing beeps are coming faster – about every second or so.
READING THE NUMBERS ON MY NEUROFEEDBACK CHARTS
As I move further into the neurofeedback process, I’ve been asking my coach Cynde the significance of the various numbers I see on the screen during a feedback session. For the beta waves, she explains she has set the protocol to give me feedback 90% of the time – represented by the red “90” at the top right on the screen. My brain is being discouraged from making alpha waves 20% of the time – signified by the red “20” at the top left of the screen. Numbers that come up in blue next to these numbers are how well my brain is meeting the challenge. The blue numbers for my responses have been improving.
8. I’m at a plateau, using neurofeedback with beta reinforcement. (July 22)
At my next session by phone with Cynde Margritz, I commented that I seemed to be reaching a plateau with beta reinforcement: My spirits and my happiness quotient were up, but I didn’t notice an improvement in my memory. My beta waves were not going up.
WHAT CAUSED THE SLOWER BRAIN WAVE ACTIVITY?
When Cynde first read my brain map, she said it looked like I might have hit my head at some time in the past. She saw an arc of slower brain wave activity stretching from my right to left frontal lobes, across the “memory hub.” I remember hitting my head on the trunk lid of my car about 15 years ago. The blow was strong enough to cause a flood of floaters in my left eye.
“That could be it!” Cynde said, indicating that the resulting slower (alpha and theta) brain waves, possibly caused by the blow, were keeping my beta waves from increasing. Beta waves are the high frequency waves that increase motivation and reaction time and lower fear, anxiety and depression.
SLOW BRAINWAVES MOVE IN SYNC
“It’s time to add a delta inhibit,” Cynde said. “When the delta waves go down, the alpha and theta brain waves will follow.” The memory hub area should have an easier time doing their job and your memory should improve unless there is a physiological/ biochemical reason for it not to.
With eight sessions over the next two weeks, I saw my delta score go down from 49.93 to 35.65, my theta score from 27.74 to18.45 and my alpha from 17.54 to10.20. I could see the results on the graphs which charted each session.
9. Treating the memory hub with neurofeedback (August 7)
So far, I’m 22 sessions into my neurofitness brain training – eight sessions connected remotely with Cynde in Arlington, Virginia, and 14 by myself, here in Richmond, Virginia. I feel grumpy today!
“Your brain is at a transition point, which can cause you to feel grumpy,” said Cynde.”It may be time to combine protocols on the left and right frontal areas. There are matching sites in the left and right frontal areas of your brain – called the memory hub. Everything is about balance. Using this new F4SMR protocol, we will do calming on the right and while using an F3 beta protocol to activate on the left.”
TREATING BOTH SIDES OF MY BRAIN
With Cynde monitoring online, we did 15 minutes of neurofeedback on the right frontal area of my brain and then 15 minutes on the left. I saw the results: My delta waves registered 31.58 – a drop of 7.45 from our starting point. My theta waves dropped 10.18 points and my alpha waves dropped 8.19 points.
Also, my beta waves were dropping. Beta waves are divided into two categories: low (lobeta) and high (hibeta). My hibeta dropped 7.46 points and lobeta dropped 5.77 points. The lobeta and hibeta waves seemed to be closing in together into an almost straight line on the graph, with the theta, alpha and delta waves, respectively, fluctuating above. Lobeta is also called SMR or sensorimotor rhythm which is a calming brainwave. Hibeta, on the other hand, is usually reflective of tension.
After this session I took a nap and woke feeling energized, almost agitated. I cooked dinner (something I often avoid by ordering take-out) and then went grocery shopping that evening Note: since retirement, my energy level has hovered at about zero in the evenings. This increase in energy continued into the next day.
10. Oops! I hit the wrong button! Can we make a correction with neurofeedback? (August 13)
For the next two sessions, I continued to work on my own to treat my memory hubs, alternating 15 minutes on the right front side of my brain for relaxation and 15 minutes on the left front section for stimulation. When Cynde and I reviewed my session results the next week, we found a discrepancy. In attempting to make the switch between two protocols at mid-session, I had hit the “pause” button when I should have hit the “stop” button to stop the first protocol and start the second. So, in effect, I was using the same relaxing protocol on both sides of my brain. We were able to catch the mistake because each session of neurofeedback creates a separate graph of brain wave movement during the session.
Mistakes like mine are easily corrected and create no lasting effect. This is why neurofeedback is not a do it yourself project. Cynde’s professional guidance was crucial to my treatment. Running a few sessions incorrectly is usually not a significant problem in a peak performance setting. On the other hand, repeatedly training the brain incorrectly can lead to under par performance, the opposite of my goal.
11. Using two-channel neurofeedback protocol to lower alpha and delta waves (Sept. 1)
To avoid the confusion of switching protocols, Cynde suggested I work with two channels at once to inhibit or lower both delta and alpha waves. She explains that when the delta waves go down, the alpha and theta waves will follow.
This two-channel protocol involves using five sensors on my head – one on each frontal lobe (left and right), one on each ear and one placed randomly on my head as a “ground.” Each sensor is creating a thermometer-like track on my computer screen: gray for delta, blue for alpha, green for lobeta, pink for beta and yellow for hibeta.
Tracking this two-channel protocol is like watching the horses go by on a merry-go-round: five thermometer-like bars go up and down on one screen, which is tracking the left side of my brain, and five bars go up and down on another screen, which is tracking my right side.
The delta thermometer is jumping the highest on both screens. The alpha waves are lower and the beta waves are on the bottom.
12. Two-channel neurofeedback protocol is a beeping success! (Sept. 25)
This is my 11th session with the two-channel protocol (d and a inhibit) and my 41st session overall. It’s a very good session; the beeps, which indicate I’m hitting the goal, are almost continuous.
Like Pavlov’s dog, my brain keeps working for the reward – demonstrating classical conditioning theory.
The pattern of brainwaves reflects my improved functioning with less anxiety and more clarity.
When Cynde and I do our joint session the next day, she indicates I’m doing so well we may be able to increase the difficulty of attaining the goal. It’s similar to increasing the incline of the treadmill, she explains. For our next session, she will lower the beta reward frequency from 90% to 85%. When the reward is set at 90%, the brain only has to work 10% of the time to receive the reward/ beep. Now the brain’s working time will be 15%. The downward trend of my delta and alpha waves continued with the harder reward system. Cynde’s job is to constantly assess and adapt the program to reinforce peak brain function and improve verbal memory.
13. Skipping four days of neurofeedback puts me in a grumpy mood. (October 9)
Today is my 46th session of neurofeedback and my fourth session with the 85% reward protocol. Using Cynde’s treadmill simile, which means my brain is working harder, my reaction is “No sweat!” In fact, I find myself getting bored during the neurofeedback sessions I do on my own. When Cynde and I have our remote meeting today, I admit that I skipped four days of neurofeedback last week. As with any training program, I know that the more sessions I do, the better I’ll feel. But sometimes it’s just hard to rally that motivation….
” How do you feel” she asked.
“I felt grumpy on Monday and Tuesday.” I said. “I skipped my physical exercise too. Does that mean the neurofeedback is not working?”
“No, quite the opposite,” she said. “It seems the effect from your neurofeedback is lasting four to five days (Thursday – Sunday). You’re feeling what you used to feel like all the time, only it’s a much sharper contrast now. ”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. After my session with Cynde on Wednesday, I felt much calmer, happier and more motivated. I’m back on track.
Anxiety has been one of the symptoms I have worked to overcome with neurofeedback. I realized that neurofeedback was working to reduce my anxiety when I got lost for the second time attending an evening function at Ft. Lee, near Hopewell, Virginia.
The event was the annual dinner meeting for the Hopewell-Prince George Chamber of Commerce. Last year when I attended the dinner meeting, I didn’t realize that Ft. Lee would be very dimly lit at night and that my GPS wouldn’t work on the base – security precautions taken by the Army. The situation created high anxiety for me as I circled dark and unfamiliar territory for 15 to 20 minutes. Finally, I found a gate with two workers, asked for directions and was able to get back to my home in Chesterfield, Virginia. I was almost breathless by that time!
This year, I had a plan: I would carefully watch how I entered the base, marking visual “bread crumbs” so I could find my way back out again. As I did the year before, I left the meeting before the crowd and headed for the Lee Gate, where I had entered. As I approached the gate, I saw a sign that the gate had closed at 7:30 p.m. It was now 8 p.m.
I didn’t panic. I made a u-turn back to the parking lot, found another departing car and followed that car until I found another gate.
I attribute this change in behavior and emotional response to neurofeedback training.
14. Good news: All brain waves are coming together in today’s neurofeedback. (October 13)
After my neurofeedback session today(my sixth session with the 85% reward protocol), I reviewed the results: the brain waves are all coming together and Cynde says “playing well together” Turns out the brain is kind of like a symphony and the whole production gets thrown off if one section of the orchestra performs incorrectly. In my case it was the section playing bass or the long, slow, low tones. Too many of them were drowning out the performance of my quick staccato notes that are required for timely memory retrieval and processing.
THE NUMBERS TELL THE STORY WITH NEUROFEEDBACK
My delta score has gone down from 35.65 on July 22 to 22.85 today. In the same period, my theta score is down from 18.45 to 12.01; my alpha score down from 10.20 to 7.21. That means I am beginning to control these slow brain waves which impede clear thinking and motivation. This matches what I see in my life – much less anxiety and more self-confidence.
15. The beep goes on with beta rewards at 80% (Oct. 20, Oct. 24, Oct. 31)
I started the 80% protocol and used it for three neurofeedback sessions. While the reward percentage is going down, my mental stamina is going up! The reward beeps are almost continuous. Cynde says my brain is integrating and consolidating the changes so that they will last after I discontinue training. This is one of the most attractive features to neurofitness you don’t have to do it forever like physical fitness training.
16. Putting “four to the floor” with beta reward at 75% (Nov. 5, Nov. 6, Nov. 7, Nov. 10)
On my second session with 75% beta rewards, I noticed it took almost three minutes before the reward beeps started… but then they kept on going. My mental engine was purring! I have completed 54 sessions of neurofeedback. I tell Cynde I’m ready to be retested with a follow-up brain map to measure the brain wave changes that neurofeedback has helped me achieve. I will retake a memory performance test as well to assess my progress.
17. Brain map shows enhanced beta waves in my prefrontal and occipital areas (December 10)
Cynde has reviewed the results from my follow-up brain map with me:
polly trainingOver the five-month neurofeedback process, Cynde has tracked the migration of the beta waves to the left side of my brain. Beta waves (used for thinking and problem-solving) have been enhanced in my brain’s prefrontal and occipital areas, both important for memory processing and good mood.
Neurofeedback has helped to normalize the slower alpha waves in my frontal memory hub and the prefrontal emotional control hub. Alpha waves have temporarily followed the beta to the left side in order to accommodate the change. Cynde has said I should see a reversal of this over time; it’s a short term compensatory move by my brain to keep things balanced until it adapts to the increased beta waves.
Activity of the delta waves has been lowered, indicative of less slow wave “fog” in the prefrontal and central strip, where memory is processed.
Theta waves have also been greatly reduced in the frontal processing area of my brain, allowing for greater mental clarity.
The second memory test also showed dramatic improvement with neurofeedback.
Retaking the memory test after five months of neurofeedback showed dramatic improvement in two key areas: verbal and composite memory.
My verbal memory score improved from 68 to 126. In the verbal memory test, delayed recall is measured. The subject has to remember 15 words and recognize them in a field of 15 “distractors.” In the first test,I was so anxious that I couldn’t even try to remember the words. I blanked out! My resulting score of 68 was considered very low, indicating impairment, which, thankfully, was only temporary!
My composite memory score increased from 86 to 129. The composite memory score measures how well the subject can retain, retrieve and recall words and geometric shapes. It combined scores from two of the (number) sections of the test. My other scores were in the normal range.
Normal scores on both these tests are measured in the 90 to 109 range, with 109 considered to be high or top performing. My second scores (126 and 129) are back where I want to be: on top of the top!
I’m beginning to feel like my “old self”again.