The brain of someone with an eating disorder is fear-based, according to Los Altos clinician Theresa Chesnut.
It’s why sufferers starve themselves, binge and purge their food or compulsively exercise to lose an amount of weight that will never be satisfying.
But groundbreaking research in the area of neurofeedback is aiming to change that fear and turn it into self-healing.
In the heart of downtown Los Altos, Chesnut has begun treating her patients with neurofeedback. It’s not a new concept, she said, but Ed Hamlin, the neuropsychologist who trained her, has been leading the way in the study of neurofeedback’s clinical effectiveness for those with eating disorders.
“A lot of people who have trauma have a fear-based brain,” she said. “What I was noticing with a lot of my eating disorder clients is that they may or may not have had trauma, but that anxiety and the OCD in the brain is just so fear-based of making mistakes.”
Neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, is decades old. The treatment involves placing sensors for an electroencephalogram (EEG) on a patient’s head and recording the electrical activity within the brain.
Once hooked up to the EEG, a technician can see the different brain waves. For example, alpha waves signal activity having to do with focus, while theta waves are more in the realm of daydreaming. After a baseline is recorded, the patient plays a video game to try and train his or her brain to reinforce neuropathways that aren’t as fear-based.
But this isn’t your average video game. There are no controls – just your brain and the screen. In an attempt to explain the science to a baffled reporter, Chesnut’s technician, Clay Jorgenson, took my brain for a quick test-run. After the sensors were placed on each of my earlobes and atop my head, he turned on a game very similar to Pac-Man. The Pac-Man moves throughout the maze and eats the little dots until it reaches the end.
As it turns out, those alpha waves are helping the Pac-Man move as you focus on the game. If you lose focus and start drifting off, the Pac-Man stops.
“There’s three bars I’m setting,” Jorgenson said about the game. “I’m setting two limbo bars so they want to get their high beta and their theta to go under … and then there’s a high jump, which is the alpha. I want them to go over the high jump and then I reward them.”
Those rewards include the increasing speed of the Pac-Man, the size of the dots and the beeping. They mean the brain is reaching the desired levels of alpha waves and is reinforcing neuropathways. The technician also can make the game more difficult so that more focus and higher levels of alpha waves are required.
Jorgenson said he likes to think of neurofeedback as your mind being a map.
“With neurofeedback, it’s like we take you to that position (on the map) and offer another path you can take, and this one is actually a better path,” he said. “Once your brain learns that path (higher alpha wave amplitude), it has the option of taking it instead of the well-worn mental rut people so often get stuck in.”
Neurofeedback and eating disorders
While Chesnut said she’s not currently doing her own research on the topic, she said she hopes to in the future. She wants to see if using neurofeedback really does prevent relapse in patients with eating disorders.
“I’ve been a clinician for a really long time,” she said. “(I thought) about (how) this could really help clients – especially eating disorder clients, since that is my major focus – not relapse and be able to tolerate the stress and the anxiety that comes back after you’re re-fed or not bingeing and purging anymore.”
But as Chesnut waits, she’s keeping a close eye on Hamlin’s research and work with Avalon Hills, a top eating disorder treatment facility in Utah.
“It’s really the very first study on neurofeedback in eating disorders,” she said. “He uses what is call a qEEG, which is like the EEG, but it literally takes a picture and a map of your brain so you can see the blue spots where the arousal is going on. ... What he’s finding is that with most of the eating disorder clients across the board, there’s not enough alpha.”
Tera Lensegrav-Benson, clinical director at Avalon Hills, attested to how innovative the research is, noting that only a few studies have published data on its effectiveness.
“It’s sort of on the frontier of eating disorders,” she said. “It’s most known for treatment of PTSD and ADHD, but it’s now being used as a noninvasive treatment in adjunct to traditional therapies.”
Chesnut’s office is located at 313 State St., Los Altos. For more information, call 946-8232 or visit theresachesnutlcsw.com.