Training your brain using MEG neurofeedback

February 3, 2014

MEG real-time brain-activity imaging system (credit: Elekta Neuromag Oy)

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) can be used as a potential therapeutic tool to control and train specific targeted brain regions, a study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro), McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre has demonstrated.

MEG has important clinical applications for numerous neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions, the researchers say.

MEG is a non-invasive imaging technology that measures magnetic fields generated by neural circuits in the brain. MEG captures these tiny magnetic fields with remarkable accuracy and has unrivaled time resolution — a millisecond time scale across the entire brain.

“This means you can observe your own brain activity as it happens,” says Dr. Sylvain Baillet, acting Director of the Brain Imaging Centre at The Neuro and lead investigator on the study. “We can use MEG for neurofeedback — a process by which people can see on-going physiological information that they aren’t usually aware of — in this case, their own brain activity — and use that information to train themselves to self-regulate.

“Our ultimate hope and aim is to enable patients to train specific regions of their own brain, in a way that relates to their particular condition. For example neurofeedback can be used by people with epilepsy so that they could train to modify brain activity to avoid a seizure.”

The neurofeedback experiment

In a proof of concept study, participants had nine sessions in the MEG and used neurofeedback to reach a specific target. The target was to look at a colored disc on a display screen and find their own strategy to change the disc’s color from dark red to bright yellow white, and to maintain that bright color for as long as possible.

The researchers had set it up so that the experiment was accessing predefined regions of the motor cortex in the participants’ brain, which were identified using MRI. The color presented was changing according to a predefined combination of slow and faster brain activity within these regions.

“The remarkable thing is that with each training session, the participants were able to reach the target aim faster, even though we were raising the bar for the target objective in each session, the way you raise the bar each time in a high jump competition. These results showed that participants were successfully using neurofeedback to alter their pattern of brain activity according to a predefined objective in specific regions of their brain’s motor cortex, without moving any body part.

“This demonstrates that MEG source imaging can provide brain region-specific real time neurofeedback and that longitudinal neurofeedback training is possible with this technique.”

New therapeutic approach

These findings pave the way for using MEG as an innovative therapeutic approach for treating patients, according to the researchers.

To date, they said, work with epilepsy patients has shown the most promise, but there is great potential to use MEG to investigate other neurological syndromes and neuropsychiatric disorders (e.g., stroke, dementia, movement disorders, chronic depression, etc).

MEG has potential to reveal dynamics of brain activity involved in perception, cognition and behavior. It has provided unique insight on brain functions (language, motor control, visual and auditory perception, etc.) and dysfunctions (movement disorders, tinnitus, chronic pain, dementia, etc.).

The researchers are currently using his technique with people that have amusia, a disorder that makes them unable to process musical pitch. It is hypothesized that amusia results from poor connectivity between the auditory cortex and prefrontal regions in the brain.

In an ongoing study, the team is measuring the intensity of functional connectivity between these brain regions in amusic patients and aged-matched healthy controls. If the approach demonstrates an improvement in pitch discrimination in participants, that will demonstrate the clinical and rehabilitative applications of this approach.

This work was funded by The Neuro’s National Bank Fellowship, the Killam Trusts, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec-Sante, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Institutes of Health, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Germany), the Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (France), and a seed grant from the Center for Research on Brain, Language and Music (Canada).

Abstract of NeuroImage paper

  • Real-time MEG brain imaging, used in a multi-session training program.
  • Specific neural oscillatory components within brain regions of interest were targeted.
  • Real-time visual feedback was provided to subjects based on these metrics.
  • Subjects demonstrated that targeted neural activity could be modulated with practice.
  • Reconsidering MEG brain imaging technique as a therapeutic tool.

Biofeedback and brain-computer interfacing using EEG has been receiving continuous and increasing interest. However, the limited spatial resolution of low-density scalp recordings is a roadblock to the unequivocal monitoring and targeting of neuroanatomical regions and physiological signaling. This latter aspect is pivotal to the actual efficiency of neurofeedback procedures, which are expected to engage the modulation of well-identified components of neural activity within and between predetermined brain regions. Our group has previously contributed to demonstrate the principles of real time magnetoencephalography (MEG) source imaging. Here we show how the technique was further developed to provide healthy subjects with region-specific neurofeedback to modulate successfully predetermined components of their brain activity in targeted brain regions. Overall, our results positively indicate that neurofeedback based on time-resolved MEG imaging has the potential to become an innovative therapeutic approach in neurology and neuropsychiatry.