New Breakthroughs in Neuroscience and Neurofeedback Offer Hope for Better Brain Functioning
A Q&A with Narbis CEO Devon Greco
Recently, The Hustle reported that since featuring Stanford Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman in November 2021, over 90 days, #neurosciencehacks searches snowballed eightfold on TikTok indicating a booming thirst for neuroscience, thanks to influencers like Andrew who repackage bizarre brain insights for the masses.
Also making headlines is the amazing story of how researchers used auditory neurofeedback to help a patient with ALS learn to manipulate his own brain activity.
The process involved researchers showing the patient his brain activity in real time, and the patient learning to change his brain signals, writes Science’s Kelly Servick. The man learned to hit audible target notes by increasing or decreasing his neural activity. A higher tone — increased firing rate of neurons — meant “yes,” while a lower tone meant “no.”
The patient spelled words out slowly, at about one letter per minute, and on the second day he was spelling freely, with a first message that expressed gratitude towards the research team.
Given this growing appetite for neuroscience and brain insights, we wanted to ask neurofeedback smart glasses Narbis CEO Devon Greco to weigh in and talk about how neurofeedback fits into current dialogue. Here’s what he has to say:
Can you briefly define Neuroscience and how it relates to Neurofeedback?
Neuroscience is the study of the brain, and the science of how the brain works, specifically its impact on cognition and behavior. Neurofeedback is using a part of neuroscience to create a closed loop feedback system to change how the brain works to improve behavior and cognition. Neurofeedback works by measuring brain patterns with sensors and rewarding desirable patterns while penalizing undesirable patterns to change behavior and cognition.
What do these recent developments in neuroscience mean for the field at large?
Neuroscience and the related topics of bio and neuro-hacking to optimize performance are definitely gaining popularity. We’re seeing this explosion in the field of neuroscience. And it’s a direct result of our desire to better understand the brain: this mysterious organ that controls all of our thoughts, memories and physiology.
Everyone is looking for an edge to perform better, to get more done in shorter periods of time, or to beat the competition, whether it’s in sports, business, or politics, and these tips and tricks we come across in the neuroscience space to help improve performance are helpful, but they’re mostly relying on anecdotal evidence and more importantly, subjective measurements to gauge improvements.
Neurofeedback totally fits into this current dialogue of neuroscience, and its ability to create improvements in life that people are so keen for, as it provides us with a science-backed tool to help measure and improve performance using a closed loop feedback system.
What is a closed loop feedback system?
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback in which neural activity is measured and presented through one or more sensory channels to the participant in real time to facilitate self-regulation of the putative neural substrates that underlie a particular behavior or pathology, according to Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
I’m reminded by a quote by Lord Kelvin: If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it. What Neurofeedback gives us is a tool to realize measurements and improvements by providing aural and visual feedback on performance in real-time.
What should anyone interested in neuroscience also know about neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a tool that can be used to help develop skills to improve the brain’s control, and to have a positive impact on one’s overall performance.
It’s an empowerment tool that assists in the advancement of the field of neuroscience to better understand our brain’s control over our physiology.
In addition to that, it’s really important to also consider the ways that we may be inadvertently — or in other words, accidentally — be creating biofeedback or neurofeedback through measurement and control of things, and whether its impact is beneficial to our physiology and progressive towards our own personal goals. For example, some brain-computer interface (BCI) systems use physiologic states of relaxation versus excitement to activate or deactivate control functions.
If a user is consistently shifting to an excited state to activate a function, this may establish operant conditioning of an activated state. In some individuals who may be suffering from anxiety, insomnia, hyperactivity, or general lack-of-calmness, this could make symptoms worse.
Conversely, actuating certain relaxed states within one who is oppressed by depression or inattention could aggravate those conditions.
What is your reaction to the recent story of how researchers used auditory neurofeedback to help a patient with ALS learn to manipulate his own brain activity?
Having a father who was personally afflicted by ALS, and watching the control that disease has over one’s life, it’s really exciting to see tools like this become available. Using advanced tools like neurofeedback to help people communicate is especially beneficial for ALS patients who are locked in and not really able to communicate outside.
What does this mean for the field of neurofeedback at large?
It’s another implementation of this powerful technology that’s helping people and what greater use than to give someone a voice back who had lost it.
Neurofeedback is powerful technology and I predict we’re also going to begin seeing additional applications of neurofeedback outside of those who have lost their ability to move. For example, biofeedback and neurofeedback have been used in the past to help bring patients who were locked in a coma. Being able to provide an auditory or visual reward when their brain started to drift outside of a comatose state in some cases, worked to bring people outside of comas.
A while back, Mattel introduced the “Mindflex” ball game that allowed a player to move a ball on a screen using their brains. You noted that they learned from manipulating alpha waves which is the opposite of what would be helpful to someone with ADHD. Can you explain this further?
For individuals who have attention difficulties, especially those with hyperactivity, ADD and ADHD, we see that their brains often produce a lot of alpha waves, and not enough beta waves. [Scientific American published this piece explaining the difference between brainwaves]
For example, an alpha wave is this kind of day-dreamy, tuned-out meditative state. The Mindflex game essentially measured alpha waves, which is an easy brainwave pattern to control, especially for those (like someone with ADHD) who already makes a lot of alpha wave outputs; it’s easy for them to turn them on and manipulate.
Alpha waves caused the ball to move forward in the game, essentially creating a closed loop feedback system. When the brain produced more alpha, the ball moved forward, following the principles of operant conditioning which rewards the user.
However, by this same principle, the game also trains the user to produce more alpha waves, and this is totally the opposite of what we want brains to learn to do. In some cases, this can cause ADHD symptoms to worsen. This is just one example of a misuse of biofeedback and the danger it can potentially cause.
How can neurofeedback help train patients to reinforce a desirable outcome?
Neurofeedback training can help reinforce a desirable outcome through the use of operant conditioning, to reward and reinforce desirable patterns, and penalize and inhibit undesirable patterns that are not conducive to a desired outcome.
For example, with Narbis’ neurofeedback smart glasses, users are looking to improve their ability to focus. Narbis rewards users when their brains are focused with clear lenses, allowing in more light, which the brain likes. The glasses penalize distraction with the lenses changing tint; allowing in less light, which the brain doesn’t like and sees as a penalty.
What are the ramifications and concerns about brain-computer interface (BCI) and how can neurofeedback alleviate these concerns?
BCIs listen to the user’s brain waves for specific patterns used to activate specific functions within a computer system connected to the user. For example, Dr. Birbaumer’s approach from the NYT’s article requires the user to dial up and down their brain activity to activate a ’yes’ or ‘no’ response. If the user is consistently dialing down their brain activity to activate a ‘no’ response, they could be inadvertently training their brain to dial down, having a negative impact on cognition and behavior. When designing BCI systems, institution of neurofeedback and principles of operant conditioning and their relative affect on cognition and behavior should be considered to alleviate concerns of conditioning undesirable behaviors.
The other important part to consider is how neurofeedback can be used in conjunction with BCI to help the user to produce patterns more consistently, for greater speed and accuracy of the BCI detection.
A BCI system is looking for patterns coming from the brain. For example, when we think of the alphabet, there’s a certain brainwave pattern when we think about the letter ‘A’ and there’s a different one for ‘Z’. For movement, there’s one brainwave pattern for left, and another one for right.
The brain needs to consistently produce those same patterns each time, if you’re seeking to activate some control in the BCI system, such as spelling out sentences, or moving a ball.
By providing feedback in real-time, neurofeedback can help the user connect with the pattern for ‘left’ or ‘Yes’ so that they can produce those patterns more consistently.
About Devon Greco, Founder and CEO, Narbis
Devon is a patented inventor, entrepreneur, and product engineer focused on brain-machine interfaces and neurotechnology while specializing in human enhancement technologies.
He has 18 years’ experience developing neurotechnology and neurofeedback based on NASA patented technology with a focus on clinical and consumer applications. Narbis has been named a Space Foundation Space Certification Partner for its use of NASA technology in the Narbis smart glasses, a complex algorithm that uses three sensors on the head to monitor brain activity and help users learn the skills needed to stay focused on a certain task.