How neurofeedback training can influence the perception of tinnitus
Neurofeedback training is an innovative technique that enables people to observe their own brain activity. A joint research project between Bern University of Applied Sciences, EPFL, the University of Zurich and the University of Fribourg is investigating the influence of design in the context of neurofeedback to support tinnitus sufferers in particular.
Neurofeedback training is used to treat mental disorders such as ADHD, epilepsy and tinnitus. Neurofeedback is essentially based on the psychological concept of positive reinforcement. Researchers assume that behaviour that is positively reinforced will occur more frequently as a result. For example, if a person receives a compliment for a jumper, he or she is likely to wear the jumper more often as a result. Neurofeedback works in a similar way, except that instead of the jumper, an activity pattern in the brain is rewarded: When the brain “thinks correctly”, it receives positive feedback such as “Well done!”
But what does “thinking correctly” mean? It is known from the research literature which activity patterns are linked to ADHD or tinnitus, for example. Neurofeedback helps those affected to generate fewer “disease-causing” and more “health-causing” activity patterns. However, the brain does not receive electrical stimulation: instead, users learn to change their own thinking. Software performs complex calculations in the background and generates a value that indicates how healthy or pathological the brain activity is. This value is displayed to users in real time and gives them an amazing ability: they can observe and control their own brain activity.
People who suffer from tinnitus perceive humming or whistling sounds, hissing or noise in one or both ears that cannot be attributed to external sound sources. With neurofeedback training, those affected can learn to influence their brain activity in such a way that the tinnitus becomes quieter or loses its significance.
How can new technologies support neurofeedback training and the treatment of tinnitus?
Technological progress opens up three specific development potentials for the application of neurofeedback training for tinnitus sufferers
- Neurofeedbacktraining at home: Until now, neurofeedback training had to be carried out in a specialised practice, which caused organisational effort and costs. With increasingly affordable and user-friendly measuring devices, it will be possible to carry out neurofeedback exercises from the comfort of your own home. Similar to mindfulness exercises, sufferers could do these exercises on their smartphone on the couch.
- Advanced analysis methods: Modern mathematical approaches, especially machine learning, could improve the efficiency and user-friendliness of neurofeedback training. With these technologies, relevant activity patterns in the brain can be identified and visualised even more precisely.
- New hardware: Various technologies are currently being developed to simplify the therapy method. Neuralink, for example, is currently developing an innovative (albeit very invasive) brain-computer interface that could make it easy to measure brain activity with high temporal and spatial resolution. If the technology is safe and user-friendly, it should greatly simplify the application of neurofeedback training. Other non-invasive methods include new materials that would allow the EEG cap to be put on like a hat. This may soon make the use of electrode conductive gel a thing of the past.
What is the aim of the research project?
The “Advancing Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Tinnitus“project isan interdisciplinary research project that is investigating the influence of design in the context of neurofeedback training on various levels. In addition to visual design (e.g. aesthetic perception of design principles), the researchers are also looking at auditory elements. For example, they ask themselves how soundscapes or music applications should be designed in order to present the information “You are currently showing the correct activity pattern” in the most comprehensible and pleasant way possible. In doing so, they define general design guidelines on the one hand and focus specifically on the needs of tinnitus patients on the other
In addition to design issues, the researchers have also set themselves the goal of further developing methods for measuring activity patterns in the brain. Using machine learning and other calculation methods (e.g. entropy), they want to make the calculation more efficient and simplify the interpretation of the results.
Collaboration with the project partners at EPFL (EELAB), theUniversity of Zurich and the University of Fribourg is key to the success of the project. Specialised centres from the fields of neurology, data management, design, methodology, experimental design and statistics are contributing their expertise to shape the future of neurofeedback training and thus develop new treatment methods for tinnitus patients
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