Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Training our brains without our awareness.

There is growing interest in the use of neurofeedback (NF) as a tool to study and treat various clinical conditions. The uses of NF are diverse, ranging across a variety of motor and sensory tasks, investigation of cortical plasticity and attention, to treatment of chronic pain, depression, and mood control. In NF studies participants are typically aware that they are being trained, and received specific goals for this training. Ramos et al. take the important step of showing that targeted brain networks can be modulated even in the complete absence of participants' awareness that a training process is taking place. From their introduction:
...participants were informed that they were engaged in a task aimed at mapping reward networks. Unbeknownst to them, these rewards were coupled with fMRI activations in specific cortical networks. Participants received auditory feedback associated with positive and negative rewards, based on blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD)–fMRI activity from two well-researched visual regions of interest (ROIs), the fusiform face area (FFA) and the parahippocampal place area (PPA). However, participants were not informed of this procedure and believed, as revealed also by postscan interviews and questionnaires, that the reward was given at random.
They found that 10 of 16 participants were indeed able to modulate their brain activity to enhance the positive rewards, and were completely unaware that they were doing this. This ability was associated with changes in connectivity that were apparent in post-training rest sessions, indicating that the network changes resulting from the training carried over beyond the training period itself. The authors point out:
...that brain networks can be modified even in the complete absence of intention and awareness of the learning situation, raising intriguing possibilities for clinical interventions.

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