In 1971 Dr Barry Sterman from UCLA School of Medicine stumbled upon a solution and significantly reduced epileptic seizures in severe sufferers within 3 months. After the results were replicated in various labs around the world and publishing in Epilepsia journal in 1978, Dr Sterman’s government funding was cut and he was unable to continue his research.
Dr Sterman was a professor in the late 60s, and many of his experiments involved using animals as test subjects. One particular study in 1967 led him to the possibility of learning to control the output of specific brainwaves using biofeedback; a technique where you're connected to electrical sensors that allow you to receive information (feedback) about your body (bio). He designed an experiment to test the theory using a group of cats.
The cats were tested individually, with each one being taken to a special chamber and connected to EEG sensors to measure their SMR (sensorimotor) brainwaves (12-15hz, low beta range; the brain frequencies associated with states of intense concentration, such as when a lion is waiting to pounce on its prey.) If the cats could produce this brainwave for half a second, an automated machine would dispense milk and chicken broth. After 6 months the cats had learnt to control their brainwaves and receive the food at will.
Not long after, Dr Sterman was asked to investigate a new rocket fuel that NASA said was making their astronauts very ill. In the days before animal rights, Dr Sterman was able to expose a number of cats to this rocket fuel and document the results; namely a sequence of nausea, sickness, collapse, seizure, and death. The results were identical across the board, except for a small number of the cats which didn’t experience seizure in their sequence. Dr Sterman was initially baffled by these findings, but upon remembering his previous experiment he realised that the cats which didn’t go into seizure were the cats that had been taught to control their SMR brainwaves. The training had strengthened their brain function and increased their seizure threshold, functionally altering their brains so as to prevent the seizures.
It just so happened that Dr Sterman’s lab manager suffered from uncontrolled epilepsy, meaning that she experienced an unacceptable quantity of seizures despite reasonable treatment. She demanded that Dr Sterman build her a biofeedback machine so she could train her SMR brainwaves in the hope of some respite from her condition.
By 1971 the machine was complete. When the patient produced SMR brainwaves a green light came on, and when they weren't producing them a red light came on; all the patient had to do was keep the green light on. After 3 months of training on multiple subjects, the result was an average of 65% reduction in grand mal seizures, with some sufferers having their seizures eliminated completely.
Conspiracies abound as to why Dr Sterman's funding was cut. Many cite the massive influence of Big Pharma on the government; if a non-drug alternative to epilepsy medication had become available then the multinational drug companies would have lost a lot of money.
But perhaps more significantly, Dr Sterman's findings, intriguing though they were, could not be fitted into a framework in which they could be understood at the time. Biofeedback was a glaring case of “prematurity in science”; a discovery made before its time. Significant advances in the neurosciences would be necessary before the realm of EEG frequencies could be understood and integrated into the body of scientific knowledge. This is only happening now, three decades later. At the time, the results remained as expensive scientific curiosities and as such soon fell by the wayside. Luckily the research continued in other labs and biofeedback, although still expensive, is used to treat severe epilepsy today.
During the course of the early research work, it was observed that hyperactivity in epileptics also seemed to subside with the training. One of Dr Sterman's associates, Dr Joel Lubar, pursued the matter further with rigorous studies. Over the years it was established that the technique could be helpful not only with hyperactivity but also with attention deficit disorder in the absence of hyperactivity, as well as with specific learning disabilities. Things grew from there, and now biofeedback is also being used to help ADHD sufferers as well as epileptics.
It makes you wonder how many other conditions we could treat naturally without the need for lifelong drug regimentation and associated side effects...
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