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What is neurotherapy?

Written By : Justine Loewenthal
Registered Counsellor and EEG Technician

Neurotherapy has been demonstrated to be highly effective in treating varying degrees of psychological and physical disorders. It uses state of the art technology to allow the ADD child to gradually change his or her own brainwave patterns for optimal functioning.

An optimally functioning brain has the flexibility to change states of attention and arousal. Each situation requires an appropriate mental state. A brain in which there is dysregulation will have difficulty in doing this. It is out of sync with itself.

Neurotherapy is based on the principle that disorders stem from an over- or under-activity of a part of the brain. Neurotherapy assumes that the brain's electrical activity is a reflection of mental states and that this activity can be trained.

We refer to neurotherapy training as opposed to neurotherapy treatment. Training implies that the child being trained plays an active role in the training process. Treatment implies a passive role. The learning that takes place in neurotherapy is an active process. This encourages an internal locus of control in the child.

Many disorders are a result of a dominance of undesirable brainwave frequencies. Through neurotherapy, we strive to lower the intensity of the frequencies that are causing the symptoms for the child and in doing so, the child will be more likely to achieve their full potential.

Neurotherapy has no long lasting side effects. Because it is a learning process, negative information that is not reinforced will not remain.

History of Neurotherapy

Dr. Barry Sterman worked with cats in the 1960's, and found that, through operant conditioning, they could be trained to produce a specific brain wave pattern between 12hz and 19hz. He named the rhythm, occurring between 12hz and 15hz, sensorimotor rhythm (SMR).

Dr. Sterman then found that cats that had been conditioned to increase their SMR were substantially more resistant to seizures when exposed to rocket fuel than cats that had not been conditioned. He attempted the same operant conditioning to increase SMR in human patients with epilepsy and found that their seizures decreased in frequency, duration and severity. Sometimes, seizures were completely controlled.

A psychologist, Joel Lubar, from the University of Tennessee, came to the University of California in Los Angeles to work with Dr. Sterman. The question was raised as to whether hyperactive children may benefit from neurotherapy. In controlled studies, it was shown that a significant number of the children provided with SMR training objectively benefited.

Brainwave States

Electrodes placed on the scalp are able to record electrical activity produced by the brain. The electrical pattern is called a brain wave. The height of a brainwave is called the amplitude. The greater the amplitude, the more power there is.

Every brainwave frequency has a function. The goal of neurotherapy is to give the child the flexibility to access the appropriate brainwave state, instead of being "parked" in one frequency.

The human brain produces all brainwaves all of the time. Depending on the level of arousal, a specific frequency will be dominant. Ideally, the dominant frequency must reflect the activity the child is engaged in at that time.

Delta (0.5hz – 3hz), the frequency dominant during sleep, is the slowest. Delta may also be dominant after a brain injury or in certain learning disorders.

A dominance of theta activity (4hz – 7hz) or under-arousal causes many of the symptoms associated with ADD. Too much theta in the frontal part of the brain will result in impaired executive functioning. Many children with ADD have problems with time management and planning, organization, keeping an organized area and concentration. Because theta is a slow brainwave state, information will be processed too slowly and much information is not retained in a classroom situation. Excessive theta is not conducive to learning.

Alpha (8hz – 11hz) is associated with passive attention and creativity.

SMR beta (12hz – 15hz) is associated with concentration, calm focus, decreased anxiety, mental alertness and external awareness.

Beta (15hz – 18hz) is involved in active attention and learning of new concepts.

High beta (21hz +) has a correlation with emotional intensity, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Children with ADD have an immature brainwave pattern because of the excess of slow activity. This does not make their EEG abnormal, however. The ratio between the faster "concentration" waves and the slower "daydreaming" waves is different from children without attentional problems.

The difference in the ratio between fast and slow waves is usually more pronounced during tasks that require concentration, such as reading. Children without ADD will produce more fast waves when they attempt to concentrate. Children with ADD produce more slow waves. This occurrence contributes to that child's inability to process the information in the classroom at the correct speed.


Arousal refers to a continuum of states of excitation, ranging from coma on the one end of the continuum to panic on the other end. The internal arousal system controls states of attention, wakefulness, sleepiness, impulsivity, mood, awareness, behaviour and appetite.

A dysregulation of this delicate arousal system is at the core of ADD. This may result in a variety of behavioural, emotional and cognitive problems.

Learners in the classroom situation require a specific level of arousal in order to retain the information presented to them. A dysregulated brain will be ineffectively self-managed and will have trouble recognizing the cues to change arousal levels to accommodate a new task. An inconsistent performance record is a common problem among ADD children. This is due to fluctuations in management of arousal.

Learners with ADD are in a state of under-arousal caused by an excess of slow brainwave activity. Some symptoms of under-arousal include impaired concentration, procrastination, lack of motivation, low self-=esteem, and depression. It often takes these children a long time to fall asleep at night and they wake up irritable in the morning.

Learners with ADHD also have excessive theta activity. In addition, they have excessive high beta. They may act as though they are driven by a motor. They are usually impulsive, distracted, hyperactive and short-tempered.

Arousal is determined through behavioural rating checklists completed by significant others (parents, teachers) as well as extensive information obtained in clinical interviews with the child and parents. Constant feedback from parents, the child, the school and other therapists is essential.


  • Thompson, M. & Thompson, L. (2003). The Neurofeedback Book.
  • Sears, W. & Thompson, L. (1998). The A.D.D. Book.