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AAPB Conference Report, Installment #3

by Siegfried Othmer | May 5th, 2003

In this final installment of the report on the AAPB Conference, I just wanted to catch people up on my impressions of what is happening to the technology. In the exhibit hall it became apparent that we are on the threshold of another generation of software from a number of vendors. I had spent the first day of our attendance at the conference being taught about the new version of Biograph software from Thought Technology. The new software promises to be a lot more versatile than the current generation. This flexibility is exciting to those of us who are thinking up things to do with neurofeedback, but of course it can also be intimidating and bewildering to the end user. The answer is that the new program is really a platform on which user-level programs are constructed. In Thought Tech lingo these are called scripts. I have been talking with Thought Tech people about a number of display options and specific discriminants for training that can be incorporated into a script.

The general thrust will be to incorporate more and more intelligence into the feedback calculation, involving a variety of decision-making that does not have to be under the immediate command of the therapist. We should not burden the practitioner with all of the particulars of a feedback design. Any features that can be automated should be handled in that way. This is particularly true for the inhibits, which can be EEG-responsive in a straight-forward algorithmic fashion. Here we can bring all kinds of sophistication to bear on the question of whether the EEG is moving toward or away from a state of optimal regulation. As new criteria are devised and accepted, they can simply be inserted as additional weighting functions or decision points, all of which function in background as far as the clinician is concerned. What remains for the clinician is to fine-tune choices with respect to the rewards. But as the overall training incorporates more and more measures, the relative impact of the rewards will of necessity decline. The training will therefore become much more manageable and less tippy for the clinician.

I also spent time with Jan Hoover of J&J, and with Bob Grove, who is working with them to implement the user-level interface for the new generation of software. The new mini C2 offers a simple two-channel EEG system at very modest cost, and the same EEG software can also be part of a larger system that incorporates peripheral measures as well. Increasingly we will see two-channel EEG as a standard entry path into biofeedback for mental health professionals, and the obvious growth path will then be the adoption of more measures on peripheral physiology. J&J has donated a C2-mini system to the Brian Othmer Foundation, and we will be working through Bob Grove to implement some of our new ideas on feedback. We thank Jan Hoover for the donation.

Working with Jan also is Peter Litchfield, who has developed an inexpensive device for tracking CO2 in the outbreath. I was doing Heart Rate Variability training at his setup at the Winter Brain Conference, and in my zeal got into an overbreathing situation. This is an easy thing to have happen as one focuses on the breath, but the flaw is immediately revealed by the CO2 monitor, and with that feedback one can keep from getting into bad breathing habits. It is in fact a good general recommendation for the paced-breathing work that the breath should be slower, but not necessarily much deeper. The slightly unpleasant downside is that one has to have a tube at one’s nostril to sample the outbreath, but that’s as medicinal as it gets.

Also using Jan’s platform is Len Ochs. Len is just about ready to go with his next-generation LENS system (see the Bulletin Board), and he is willing to sell it on a largely pay-as-you-go basis so that a large up-front investment is not required. This is important because the LENS system is much more likely to be considered as a complementary system for neurofeedback rather than as the primary system or as the first venture into neurofeedback.

Finally, Jan is working with Barry Sterman on the NeuroNavigator QEEG system. This system was first demonstrated at the Udine, Italy, meeting of the ISNR, and a first user’s meeting is scheduled later in May on Catalina. The system may in time be distributed by Thought Technology. Ultimately the unit will make provision for neurofeedback as well, but initially the focus is on the QEEG mapping function.

Already on the market with impressive QEEG hardware and software, as well as aggressive pricing, is Deymed, a Czech development effort that arose out of Jiri Tyl’s early work in getting neurofeedback accepted in the Department of Neurology at Charles University in Prague. (That was an effort to which Barry Sterman, Dennis Campbell, and Sue and I contributed.) The QEEG mapper is complemented by a four-channel amplifier for training purposes that can be deployed independently. This unit offers two EEG channels, an EMG channel, and a GSR channel. We have just received the 4-channel Deymed unit as a donation to the Brian Othmer Foundation, and we hope to be evaluating it promptly. Our thanks go to Doug Youngberg for the donation.

BrainMaster is currently marketing version 2.0 of their software, as well as the Mini-Q, a device with 12 active sites for the successive evaluation of the EEG in six electrode pairs. The placement is such that it allows us to evaluate all of the site pairs we use in inter-hemispheric training except for Fp1-Fp2. On the midline it offers site pairs Fz and Cz. Data analysis is offered for mini-map data by David Souter, by Bob Thatcher, and by Pete Van Deusen. Version 2.0 of the basic software incorporates some of the suggestions we have made to Tom Collura to make the instrument more adaptable to our purposes. The unit now facilitates frequency-shifting of the reward band with a simple command. The game displays are now smoother. And the thermometer graph display is now more intuitive. The BrainMaster is currently allowing us to evaluate more comprehensive inhibit strategies, since as many as eight signal channels can be arbitrarily assigned to be either rewards or inhibits. This can replicate the multiple targeting strategy of NeuroCarePro. It is also allowing us to evaluate the simultaneous training of two different reward schemas in two channels, which Val Brown has been doing for some time with his software. We thank Tom and Terri Collura for donating both a BrainMaster and a Mini-Q for our work at the Brian Othmer Foundation.

The second iteration of the Pocket Neurobics unit, the A-1, is now available from Bruce McMillan of Australia. It now offers a more conventional set of electrodes. Bruce kindly donated a system to the Brian Othmer Foundation for evaluation, and we are starting to work with it. We are grateful to Bruce. The instrument offers the least expensive interface to Hershel Toomim’s HEG unit. We expect to be using it with the infrared link to the computer rather than as a stand-alone device, and to use the BioExplorer software that is now being developed independently for use with various types of front-end hardware. The BioExplorer is another versatile platform that allows the construction of specific training strategies. Marco Versace will be working to develop that software in Germany, and we will be putting our heads together when we are there for the June training course.

Val is readying version 1.85 of his NeuroCarePro software. The distinguishing feature of this software is that much of the “operator independence” we hope for is already operative on that system. With further developments of the software, Val is striving to make the system compatible with other approaches as well. We are still hoping for a collaboration that would allow our ideas for a reward strategy to be implemented on that system to complement the multiple targeting inhibit strategy of the NeuroCarePro software.

We also heard that the Dutch group that wrote the original software for Biograph is proceeding independently to develop its next generation of neurofeedback software, and that promises to be available in the fall. Tom Allen is continuing his consulting relationship with the developers.

Hershel exhibited his HEG system. He has just loaned a unit that interfaces with the BrainMaster to the Foundation for evaluation. We thank him.

Missing from the scene at the AAPB was NeuroCybernetics, whose new generation software should also be available in a few months.

The overall impression one has of these developments is that there is a great deal of innovation happening within the field of neurofeedback, and that we are within months of major generational changes in software from a number of key vendors. A certain convergence is taking place in the capabilities as better software is written for the more competent modern hardware. It has been true for years that the amount of technical development going on is somewhat out of line with the size of the field. Of course everyone expects significant growth over the years to justify all this effort, but for the time being the growth is still more arithmetic (linear) than geometric (quadratic).

The best near-term option for significant volume appears to be the emerging home user market, which promises ultimately to outpace a professional market that is continuing its gradual growth pattern. There will likely be a split into a home user market and a clinical market, and vendors will have to find a way to feed into both of these. Low-end pricing is already such that it does not present a barrier to most families.

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