December 5, 1997

Folio Staff

Look here.

Read this sentence.

In the few seconds it took you to read those words, your brain recruited high frequency beta waves to sift and process many bits of information. That complicated physiological response probably seemed automatic to you. You didn't consciously tell your brain to activate beta waves.

But clients in the Faculty of Education's Cognitive Re-regulation Program are learning to consciously control this response. A team of researchers, led by Program Coordinator Jolene Leps and educational psychologists Dr. Charles Norman and Dr. George Fitzsimmons, has developed a program that helps children and adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The clients actually teach their brains to decrease slow wave production called theta and increase or maintain beta wave production, the high frequency waves our brain needs to process information. Clients also learn to decrease the variance or "bursts" of brain wave activity that can prevent them from concentrating.

Ten-year old Shawn* is one of the program's best clients. Twice a week, the Grade 5 student spends an hour in front of a computer screen wearing clips on his earlobes and a sensor on the top of his head. The signal that is picked up by the sensor is passed through an EEG (electroencephalograph) analyser into a specialized computer program which allows Shawn to both see and hear his brain waves.

Shawn stares intently at the computer-image of an airplane which represents the slow theta waves in his brain. "Theta waves," says Coordinator Jolene Leps, "are the same brain waves produced predominantly during sleep. While our brain produces all of the brain waves all of the time, the proportion at any one time is important. People with ADD produce significantly higher levels of slow brain wave, or theta, activity than age-matched, average achieving children."

By trying to pay attention and focus, Shawn is learning to decrease the slow theta waves. Shawn knows he's doing it correctly because the theta-representing plane on the screen descends along with Shawn's theta waves. If he fails to pay attention, Shawn's brain produces more theta waves and the plane flies too high.

Program ccoordinator Jolene Leps
works with Jovan Kosior

"At first it's very random because it is trial and error learning. The client doesn't know how to get his brain to do something different," says Leps. "This process is called neurofeedback. We 'feed back' to the client in essentially real time what his brain wave activity is so that he can make changes in his brain wave production. The program is unique in that the changes are not externally induced, but rather the client learns to internally change the way his brain is functioning."

All this is exhausting work, Leps says. After twenty minutes of this intense concentration, kids can be both tired and thirsty.

Shawn says he uses the skill to help him focus on his schoolwork. "Last Sunday I had a whole bunch of homework, communication skills and spelling and math, and I had to get it all done. Last year, it would have taken me a whole day to get it done and this year it only took half an hour."

"I have to be honest, I was very skeptical of the program," says Shawn's father, "but the improvement is 100 per cent. This is the first year that Shawn has openly expressed with exuberance his excitement and enjoyment of school. He's never done that before because school was never a happy place. It was a war zone. But now he's happier, his self-esteem is up, his confidence is up, and his marks are up."

Norman notes that 87 per cent of the program's clients experience a significant improvement in attention that directly impacts their learning ability, based on reports from teachers, parents, and the students themselves. "The student is much better able to benefit from instruction than he was before."

Norman says the challenge now is to conduct more controlled research to add to the growing body of statistical evidence that continues to demonstrate the Cognitive Re-regulation Program's success. "When we first started to do the analysis, we found that the data were too variable," he says, "because the client's stress factor and even the slightest physical movement can affect the EEG result." A study is underway where some of the children undergo four dynamic EEG assessments: one before training, two during the program, and one after the 20-week program. The data have to be screened to eliminate extraneous information. Norman says it will take months to collect and prepare the data for analysis.

He believes the results so far are promising. "Every time I walk into a school and know there is a child sitting there who is diagnosed as ADD and is not making progress, I think that if there were a way to make this program accessible to children who need it, it would be a very good thing."

*Not his real name.

Folio front page
[Office of Public Affairs]
Office of Public Affairs
[University of Alberta]
University of Alberta