The Scrambling of the Brain Waves

by Siegfried Othmer | September 11th, 2018

One of the gems in Bill Walton’s repertoire as basketball commentator was to refer to a defender as “scrambling the brainwaves” of his opponent, trying to throw him off his game for an instant by engaging his emotional self. The scrambling, if it occurred at all, would be brief and leave no lingering trace. No harm done. More persistent forms of ‘scrambling of the brainwaves’ is slowly entering the conversation in mental health and even in medicine in general.

These can be triggered by even minor brain insults that have long been thought to be benign. Here’s where network organization is disturbed to the point where the functional deficit lingers over the longer term, possibly for the rest of life. Once matters are looked at in the perspective of brain behavior (the term is neural dynamics), the implications loom ever larger. In mal-adaptive neural dynamics we may have the largest single causal mechanism of psychological dysfunction or persistent distress, and even of chronic medical diseases.

This framing of the problem of mental dysfunction had to await recent findings in neural imaging. During most of the twentieth century, conventional medical imaging could not reveal the ongoing behavior of the neural networks. At best we had structural imagery (CT scans) and static functional imagery (PET and SPECT). We did have access to brain behavior through the EEG for much of the twentieth century, but this informational bounty was difficult to interpret in a manner that was useful to psychiatry and even neurology. Neurologists really did not rely on the EEG for very much intelligence about the patient. That has changed over the last 25 years, with the maturation of functional magnetic resonance along with more sophisticated mathematical analysis tools for the EEG.

We depend upon epidemiological evidence to show that scrambled brain waves are the explanation for our present medical and psychological condition, and we happen to have the very best. Ever since the early forties, a cohort of over 100 Harvard students has been tracked in terms of their health status. By the nineties, there were four decades of data to look at, and one pattern was already very clear. The dominant factor in determining health status (with respect to the cardinal chronic diseases) was the emotional environment in the child’s home. A kid growing up in a positive emotional environment had a 25% chance of being afflicted with a chronic disease some forty years later, and that number was 89% for those raised in an unfavorable emotional environment. The ratio is 3.6.

So what happens in early childhood trauma? The nervous system learns to accommodate to a threat environment, and that has implications for one’s entire physiology. This also has fallout for the functional organization of the neural networks. This view of the matter finds support in our own work, as we have demonstrated that with proper neurofeedback training, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be readily remediated. The same holds true for the mental disorders that are rooted in early childhood adverse psychological events: Dissociative Identity Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, the personality disorders generally, and Conduct Disorder. All these respond well to brain training—but to little else. This means that neural network organization is the linchpin that sustains these dysfunctions over the longer term. Trauma memories are now seen as ‘whole-body’ memories, but the brain unifies all aspects of the memory into one experience.

When Martin Teicher and his group at Harvard looked at the problem of characterizing mental disorders on the basis of physiological measures, the lack of homogeneity within each diagnostic category could be largely attributed to one factor, namely the issue of early childhood trauma (“Maltreatment Trauma”). Putting these two critical findings together, we can now say that the determining factor bearing on health outcomes—both medical and psychiatric—is the impact of our emotional environment on early neuronal network development.

What might we be in a position to say about the incidence of chronic disease among those who had a positive emotional upbringing, which was found to be 25%? Much of this can be accounted for by traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is often mislabeled minor traumatic brain injury (mTBI). It has been generally assumed that the brain recovers readily from such ‘minor’ brain insults as concussion. Hence the ‘minor’ designation. But some 20% don’t recover, and for them there has never been a medical remedy. Accounting for mTBI is handicapped by the fact that much of such injury is so thoroughly discounted that it never even makes it into the medical records, and the families may quickly forget the incidents. And yet by now we know very well that even sub-concussive injuries can have lingering consequences.

By that standard, it could be said that nearly all of us have had minor head injuries during our upbringing. Most of us have benefited from the self-recovery capacity of our nervous systems to the point where those events are no longer troubling. Those whose deficits linger could account for much of the above 25%. We must add to that the issue of birth trauma. Many of us had difficulties getting born (I came into the world at more than ten pounds with the help of forceps delivery, and my mother was not a large person). The lingering consequences of such birth trauma are rarely connected back to that precipitating event. But the epidemiological evidence is very clear. In a study of fetal thumb-sucking that was published in Nature some decades ago, it was shown that some 95% of fetuses preferred their right thumb. After birth, it was only 85%. Birth trauma was sufficient even to alter brain laterality in ten percent of births.

On top of all that, in our society we have the consequences of maternal exposures to alcohol. Even a single dose of alcohol early in pregnancy—perhaps even before the mother-to-be knows that she is pregnant—can have devastating consequences. In a recently published rigorous evaluation of the incidence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) found it to be in the range of 3-10 percent. Since FASD is only rarely diagnosed in practice, most of these children are more likely to be labeled ADHD. According to Dr. George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities worldwide.” Additional such risks are associated with psychiatric medications, modern chemicals, pesticides in food, and other toxic exposures during pregnancy. Finally, we now have the additional burden of an overly aggressive vaccination schedule, which can impact vulnerable children.

There is one prominent issue that our Harvard-bound cohort of children does not give insight into, and that is the malignant impact of early childhood poor socio-economic environment. Recent research has demonstrated a direct impact on neural organization of this larger contextual issue, which lies beyond the individual and even beyond the immediate family. Existence within an impoverished environment is itself a major risk factor. Indeed, it has been shown to be a larger factor that the next largest six risk factors combined, in studies on African-American populations.

Favoring the assignment of the risk of chronic disease to early psychological and physical trauma is the observation that an early scrambling of the brainwaves sets the stage for all subsequent development of neural network organization. The usual risk factors associated with chronic disease— smoking, alcohol dependency, obesity, dysglycemia, low socio-economic status, etc.— can in turn also be traced back to the combination of handicaps existing at birth, in combination with the scrambling of the brainwaves in early childhood.

And now we come to the bottom line: The only demonstrated remedy for the above hazards is the combination of EEG and ILF neurofeedback (ILF = Infra-Low Frequency). There is no medical remedy for birth trauma; there is no medical remedy for minor TBI.; there is no medical remedy for FASD. There are no effective medical remedies for smoking, for alcohol dependency, for dysglycemia, or for obesity. The only proven, viable, practical remedy for these conditions is neurofeedback (and its associated low-level neuromodulation technologies).

Secondly, it is widely recognized that the preferred pathway to the reduction of our costly medical service delivery system is a prevention strategy. Unfortunately, prevention in medicine largely consists of early detection rather than prevention—with the exception of vaccines. Because ILF neurofeedback can be done even in infancy, it should ideally be framed as a prevention strategy, even though it serves presently mainly as a remedy for existing ills.

On the basis of our own multi-decadal clinical experience, it has become clear to us that the most cost-effective strategy for reducing medical costs throughout the course of life is the early insertion of neurofeedback, beginning whenever a child is found to be developing sub-optimally. Further, what is a prevention strategy in the medical perspective is an optimum functioning strategy in the family’s perspective. Whereas it is hard to prove the life with autism or with epilepsy that was avoided, the benefits of improved function are very apparent and measurable. That is to say, the cost-benefit ratio is already favorable even if one only considers the benefits in terms of improved functionality, which are more readily measurable. The more speculative benefits with respect to long-term health outcomes just provide added impetus to the initiative.

At present, we tend to give ourselves credit for being able to judge other people’s competences as well as our own. Our early years involve a sorting process in which we find out just where we fit in the scheme of things. Once the option of neurofeedback is introduced, we find that we cannot predict at all what a particular brain may be capable of. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the cumulative experience at our EEG Institute Clinic in Los Angeles in measuring performance on a Continuous Performance Test, the QIKtest. Shown are pre-post results for omission errors after nominally twenty sessions of training in ILF neurofeedback. Data are shown rank-ordered in terms of starting value. Only those scoring below the 16th percentile (85 in standard score) are shown. It turns out that the likelihood of scoring perfectly after the training is rather high, at ~50%. Even more surprising, this likelihood is entirely independent of the starting value. The initial score has very little predictive significance. This is a stunning finding. It means that we really do not know what a particular brain is inherently capable of until it has a chance to get some brain training.

We now postulate that a similar situation prevails with respect to prospective health status. The evidence in favor of this proposition is readily available. After all, we are successful in resolving the various psychiatric conditions—to a variable degree—even late in life. These conditions are progressive, so they should be even easier to resolve at earlier stages. We may never be able to predict health outcomes, but we know how to influence them favorably with early neurofeedback. We have here a pathway to an effective prevention strategy, one that is at its heart a training toward optimal functioning, thus promising positive benefits for nearly every brain.

“A wave, taken at its crest, leads on to fortune.”

William Shakespeare
Every child deserves the opportunity to ride the crest of his own wave.


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