If a machine could modulate the brain waves of cats, what could it do for humans? Five years later, Sterman hooked up a severely epileptic Veterans Administration lab tech to a clunky EEG biofeedback device that blinked a green light at her whenever her brain waves fell into SMR. After 24 sessions over three months, the tech, Mary Fairbanks, reduced her thrice-monthly seizures virtually to zero, recovering enough to get a driver's license.
Fairbanks was only the first epileptic to improve. According to a survey of the scientific literature by Sterman published in Clinical Encephalography in 2000, at least 166 medication-resistant epileptics have since been trained with neurofeedback, reducing their seizures on average by 50 percent.
If brain-wave training could modulate epilepsy, how about another presumably hard-wired impairment--AD/HD? In 1976, a psychologist who'd worked with Sterman named Joel Lubar, now at a lab at the University of Tennessee, improved the school performance of an 11-year-old boy with AD/HD by hooking him up to an EEG machine that rewarded him for reducing his overabundance of slow, daydreamy brain waves in the theta frequency range (4 to 7 firings per second--about the speed of a pheasant beating its wings).
Lubar saw true AD/HD as a purely neurological problem. He conducted his research carefully, screening out kids with concurrent depression or anxiety. Over the next three decades, he and other researchers published dozens of studies, describing successful, simple, systematic neurofeedback training with more than 1,000 AD/HD children. Although only one neurofeedback study was a gold-standard, controlled, double-blind study, the others--using control groups, but not double-blinded--suggested that, in the short term, neurofeedback improved the children's behavior and school performance about as well as Ritalin. In the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of the Prozac and Ritalin crazes, only a handful of people noticed.
In longer-term studies--all performed by proponents of the new technology--neurofeedback frequently outperformed drugs. In 2002, for instance, in the largest controlled-group study conducted so far, psychologist Vincent Monastra of Binghamton University in New York compared 51 AD/HD children receiving a Cadillac package of treatments (stimulants, individualized school help, parenting education, and a six-month course of neurofeedback) with 49 kids in a control group, getting the same package without the neurofeedback. Both groups did equally well in the short term, improving behavior at home and attentiveness in school. But in a follow-up study three years later, only neurofeedback's effects persisted after medication was temporarily withdrawn. Even more tellingly, 80 percent of the neurofeedback group had reduced their dosages of stimulant medication by at least half in the intervening three years, while none of the control group had reduced their medications, and three quarters had increased their dosages.