The Attack on the LENS

by Siegfried Othmer | September 19th, 2007

Following up on the previous newsletter post by Deborah Stokes, let me add my thoughts on some of the issues. For a long time I believed that there was a natural division within the field between standard neurofeedback training and stimulation. It was to be expected that the field of medicine would balk at relinquishing control over any kind of overt stimulation technique. However, this thinking was provoked more by the awareness that such techniques as repetitive trans-cranial stimulation and deep brain stimulation were being actively researched within the medical community. This research basis made these techniques the natural domain of medicine. Is the low-level stimulation involved in the LENS really another matter entirely? I believe that it is, for two principal reasons and from two different perspectives.

The first argument proceeds from the medical perspective. What is it that makes something an invasive technique? Implicitly the argument is around the issue of whether the particular technique alters brain structure. This distinction is perhaps best illustrated by the old controversy around the hazard of high-tension power lines. The question was asked whether these caused an increase in leukemia incidence. The mere framing of the question is already a give-away that nobody was really interested in the answer. The answer was already in hand, after all: the 60-cycle signal is incapable of breaking molecular bonds within the brain, and so it must be innocuous. For political reasons people went through the motions of epidemiological studies, but no one was really worried about how such studies would actually turn out.

If anyone really thought that there might be a hazard, then one would study biological impacts much more generally, as opposed to looking for events that are extremely rare in any case, and on which one is unlikely to obtain definitive statistics. So, if asked, most people involved in such research would assert that exposure to 60-Hz power line radiation was biologically insignificant or, effectively, non-invasive.

At an even earlier time, Russian research found biological effects of extremely low-level microwave radiation on rabbit brains, where low level meant that the heating effects were negligible. On the US side, these results were simply dismissed because once again no model of structural injury was applicable.

The level of stimulation involved in the LENS is orders of magnitude lower than what was involved in the rabbit studies in Russia. Similarly, it is orders of magnitude lower than the radiofrequency exposure being permitted routinely in cell phones. There is no question of impacting on brain structure. By prevailing standards, the LENS is non-invasive. It is incapable of ionizing anything. Hence it is chemically inert.

There is nothing, of course, that requires a medical board to be bound by reasoned argument. They could simply take the position that any stimulation is categorically under the domain of medicine. Who is there to argue? They are accuser, judge, and jury in their own cause. But let’s at least clarify the considerations in our own minds. For that purpose, we begin from the other side of the argument, that of neurofeedback.

In conventional neurofeedback, we are clearly in the realm of information. The brain learns to treat the neurofeedback signal as information about itself and acts upon it via the usual sensory and cognitive processes by which brain activity is organized into responses. Originally such events were describable as discrete events of operant conditioning. For a long time now, however, the neurofeedback signal has been presented as a continuum, and the reward as well. The brain treats this much as it would any other information from the environment. The brain strives for a “match,” or correspondence between the inner and outer manifestations of the experience. This process occurs in essentially real time, making for a much more efficient process of continuous adaptation.

In the course of this work it was discovered that the longer feedback loop via cognitive processes could actually be short-circuited entirely. One could make the brain aware directly of the reward contingencies, and provoke a response in the desired direction. It is almost as if the brain itself is a sensory organ for certain types of inputs, and does not depend entirely on its sensory prostheses, the eyes and the ears, etc. Early on, it was commonplace just to stimulate the brain at certain of its favorite frequencies using optical stimulation or binaural beat signals. This clearly affected the state of the brain, and we observe in passing that the medical community was not interested in any of this phenomenology at all.

The effect was much stronger, however, if the stimulus was contingent on a particular brain event. One obvious distinction here is that whereas the brain could habituate to steady-state oscillations, it could not help but attend to the transient and variable ones. We are now back in the realm of information. The salient factor here is the contingency of the information, not the existence of a stimulus. And the entire field of medicine has not a clue about any of this.

In the above, I am drawing a parallel between the effect of a binaural beat signal on the basilar membrane of the cochlea and the bioelectrical modulation of the electrochemical potential in certain brain regions. Visual and auditory stimulation with oscillatory signals have their effect by acting synchronously on the neuronal assemblies and imposing a corresponding rhythmic oscillation onto their firing patterns. The effect can in principle be observed as subtle oscillations in the electrochemical potential within cortex. All neurons in the vicinity are then, in turn, affected by the modulation of the local potential. We are doing nothing different if such an oscillation is instead produced by low-level electromagnetic stimulation. We are just being more efficient, more direct, and more predictable in our results.

Given the full equivalence in the mechanisms at work in each of these approaches, it makes no sense for the medical community to make the distinction that some of these technologies are of no import while another involves risk that can only be medically managed. Low-level electromagnetic stimulation should be in the public domain as much as low-level optical stimulation or auditory stimulation.

The problem may indeed be the novelty of the whole idea of the LENS, plus the fact that we are actually targeting improved brain function rather than mere amusement or even journeys into altered states. Fortunately we are once again aided by history, in that psychophysiological functioning has by default been the domain of biofeedback therapists now for some decades. Medicine gave lip service to biofeedback while in practice ignoring it. If the organizations would only bestir themselves on behalf of the members, the squatter’s rights of biofeedback clinicians could be defended.

An analogy that comes to mind is to the wild lands of the west that were given to the native American for their reservations in perpetuity. None of that mattered when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The natives got vacated.…. The problem is that the LENS is too good for its own good. But truth be told, neurofeedback is in hot pursuit. It is quite possible that there will be a watershed event in which the efficacy of both will finally be “discovered” by mainstream medicine, and the need to disenfranchise the natives will become manifest. We either hang together, or we will surely hang separately.

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

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