In recent years, advances in neuroscience research have paved the way for several important technologies to be used in autism treatment. At Cortica, we employ these technologies as part of our personalized assessment and treatment program.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is a technique used to record the electrical activity of the brain. The EEG can reveal areas of abnormal activity (such as slow patterns of firing or hyper-synchronous regions of firing). The most common reason for an EEG is to aid in the diagnosis of seizures and to show whether there may be areas of abnormal electrical activity that could be impacting cognition, behavior, and/or development. An EEG also provides information about an individual’s sleep – in particular, the brain’s progression through the different stages of sleep and whether this is disturbed. An EEG is one of the best technologies available to guide our understanding of the brain’s electrical activity and what steps we can take to improve it.
Neurofeedback is a way of training or “exercising” the brain to encourage certain patterns of electrical activity. Electrodes are placed on the scalp and the brain’s electrical activity is recorded and converted into a video display on a screen (which has the appearance of a video game or movie). When certain frequencies of brain activity increase, the brain is rewarded by the image on the screen. This trains the brain to produce more of those desirable patterns. Neurofeedback does not administer anything to the brain. The only “input” the brain gets is through watching the images on the screen, and these images are determined by the brain’s electrical activity.
During a neurofeedback session, electrodes are placed on the scalp. The individual is asked to be seated in a chair and view a computer screen. Certain settings are adjusted at each neurofeedback session, including the brain wave frequency that is being targeted and the locations on the scalp where the electrodes are placed (which allows targeting of different regions of the brain). Selection of these settings depends on the individual’s symptoms and how these change during the course of treatment. It sometimes takes several sessions in order to determine the optimal frequency and electrode placement. Neurofeedback may help with many different symptoms, including:
- Stress (including post-traumatic stress)
- Sleep disturbance
- Aggressive behaviors
Neurofeedback has also been used to help athletes, pilots, surgeons, and other highly-skilled professionals to achieve peak performance.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Vagus nerve stimulation is a technique where an electrical current is applied to the vagus nerve - a nerve that runs between the brain and many areas of the body, including the heart, gastrointestinal tract, and skin. The vagus nerve has important physical and emotional effects in the body and helps the body to achieve balance between states of stress (“fight or flight”) and states of relaxation (“rest and digest”). Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can be done either through an implanted device or through an external device applied to the skin. Vagus nerve stimulation is an FDA-approved treatment for seizures. Research studies also support vagus nerve stimulation as a treatment for depression. Recently, researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation as a safe and promising therapy for those with autism.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a therapeutic technology that involves the use of a magnetic field to generate electrical impulses in the brain. These impulses can be targeted to specific brain networks in order to increase or decrease activity. Research has shown that TMS can lead to changes in the brain’s plasticity and structure. TMS is an FDA-approved treatment for depression and is widely used as an off-label treatment for many other conditions. Individuals with autism who have received TMS have reported a variety of changes, including improvements in social awareness and interaction. Because TMS is a new technology and research is still in early stages, it must be used with care and only by professionals with a high level of expertise in both the technology and the condition that is being treated. At Cortica, we weigh many different factors in considering whether TMS is right for your child. We design personalized TMS treatment protocols, and we pair TMS with other therapies that your child is receiving in order to enhance their effectiveness.