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Neurocounseling: bridging the gap between brain and behavior

Date: February 22, 2016

It is an established fact that psychological and behavioral symptoms can be traced to an underlying physiological and neurological basis. Neurocounseling seeks to take advantage of this correlation to promote mental health. One of the techniques used is neurofeedback, which can effectively treat conditions such as depression, sleep disorders, seizures, fibromyalgia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

It was in the late 1990s when researchers at the Salk Institute found that, contrary to popular belief, the hippocampus is capable of producing new neurons during adulthood. This phenomenon can still occur even in the elderly, which opens the possibility that brain damage from illness or injuries can be repaired.

To learn more, take a look at the infographic below created by Bradley University’s Online Master of Arts in Counseling program.

Gap of Brain and Behavior

How Neurocounseling Techniques Differ from Other Schools of Thought

Most counseling professionals held the belief that the effectiveness of their treatment can be deduced from observable changes in behavior. With neurocounseling, nothing is left to chance or subjective analysis. Imaging scans with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and similar technologies are used to peek inside the brain for demonstrable physical changes. Counselors put their focus on teaching emotional and physiological self-regulation skills. Heart rate variability, skin temperature and diaphragmatic breathing are all used to help patients control their own behaviors.

Neuroplasticity and Its Implications

The brain is not a static organ. As we learn new skills and consume more information, we develop new neural pathways that help us retain and make use of that knowledge. This ability is something that we maintain throughout our lifetime and is called neuroplasticity. Counselors can combine their physiological knowledge of the brain with more traditional techniques while practicing neurocounseling. Several studies found this approach to be an effective treatment for a variety of cases.

Counseling for Major Depressive Disorder

In one study, people with major depressive disorder were treated with six hour-long weekly sessions of interpersonal psychotherapy. All of them underwent neurological scans and clinical assessments before and after the six-week period. Their symptoms significantly decreased while the scans showed increased blood flow around the region of the right basal ganglia and posterior cingulated cortex.

Compassion Training for More Altruistic and Empathetic Behavior

The training was conducted for two weeks with the subjects exhibiting greater empathy to others after the sessions. Researchers scanned the subjects’ brains to seek any changes and found increased activation in a number of areas including the inferior parietal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and nucleus accumbens. These regions have established associations with empathy towards others, emotional control and rewarding emotions, respectively.

Brain Training for Lasting Mental Health Gains

Another study checked the effects of cognitive training on people with brain injuries. It found that complex abstraction scores improved by 20 percent and memory scores by 30 percent. Meanwhile, depressive symptoms were reduced by 60 percent and post-traumatic stress disorder dropped by 40 percent. As for the scans, there was a 25 percent increase in blood flow to the frontal lobe, precuneus and anterior cingulate. These changes imply improvement in the subjects’ neural health.

Mindfulness Meditation Training

Subjects were asked to practice mindfulness meditation for about 27 minutes a day for eight weeks. Brain scans showed a rise in grey matter density in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning. Those individuals who were able to reduce their stress levels had lowered their grey matter density in the amygdala.

Impact on Health Care

The concepts learned from neurocounseling can be used in diagnosis and neurofeedback. For instance, fMRIs can diagnose bipolar disorder with 73 percent accuracy. The scans can provide doctors with valuable information that they can use aside from symptomatic observations.

Giving neurofeedback has made a remarkable difference in various subjects. Children with ADHD were seen to have improved attention and impulse control. Meanwhile, opiate addicts had decreased cravings and better mental health. Athletes can also benefit as a few sessions can activate areas of the prefrontal cortex that increase confidence in performance. This technique also lessens aggressive behavior while enhancing the ability to communicate, cooperate and maintain attention in children with autism.

Future of Neurocounseling

Neurocounseling has the potential to help millions of Americans improve their lives. The techniques developed can positively affect the 6.4 million children between 4 and 17 years old who have been diagnosed with ADHD. They could also allow the 27 million people who are battling with substance abuse to decrease their dependence, while the 15.7 million adults who suffer from depression and anxiety can find relief more effectively. Studies are also looking into the effectiveness of neurocounseling in music therapy, Tourette syndrome, fatigue, cognitive impairment, obesity, eating disorders and more.

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