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MU Researcher Studies Neurofeedback to 'Retrain' Brainwaves in Children with Autism

April 23, 2008

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Playing a video game called ‘Space Race’ that requires nothing more than brainpower to make rockets on a computer screen move forward is more than just fun and games. A University of Missouri researcher is using video games to see if the brainwaves of children with autism can be ‘retrained’ to improve focus and concentration.

 “We are trying to awaken their brains. Often children with autism disconnect and we want to use neurofeedback to teach them how it feels to pay attention and be more alert. We want to teach them to regulate their own brain function,” said Guy McCormack, chair of the occupational therapy and occupational science department in the MU School of Health Professions. “The ultimate goal is to lay down new neural pathways and, hopefully, see changes in focus and attention span, social interaction, improved sleep, and appetite.”

 Neurofeedback is a way of observing how the brain works from moment to moment. While the children play the video games, their concentration and focus are rewarded by movements on the screen and special sounds. If attention wanes, the rocket on the screen slows, sounds stop and the color changes until more attention is given to the image. As this occurs, researches watch another screen that monitors brainwave activity. The brainwave activity is measured by placing sensors on the scalp.

 “The more neurofeedback training given to a child with autism, the more often the correct brain pathways are used and the stronger they become. It’s like a ‘tune-up’ for a brain that is out of sync,” McCormack said. “The brain has a lot of plasticity and, as children continue this training, it becomes engrained and spills into other parts of their lives.”

 Neurofeedback technology was designed by NASA for flight simulations. It also is used to help high-powered executives achieve peak performance and to help athletes train their brains to ‘get into a zone.’

 “The aim of neurofeedback is to enable children to consciously control their brainwave activity by being rewarded for their ability to focus,” McCormack said. “Neurofeedback can be compared to physical conditioning for the brain.”

 McCormack says a body of evidence already exists that has found the use of neurofeedback training helps with other neurological disorders such as traumatic brain injuries, strokes, seizures, depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism and premenstrual syndrome.

 The Sinquefield Charitable Foundation gave $213,511 to fund McCormack’s study of neurofeedback for treatment of autism. The study is being conducted at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.