Using Neurofeedback to Treat Substance Use Disorder

A recent article suggests the possibility that neurofeedback (NFB) can be useful in the treatment of those experiencing substance use disorders (SUD). In this article, I articulate these possibilities further.

From the referenced article, I have extracted the following quote attributed to Dr. Othmer.

Dr. Sigfried Othmer is director of the EEG Institute and is quoted in the article as indicating “the brain wants to work from a resting state.” He further explains: “The problem with PTSD is that those who suffer from it can no longer access that state because they’re feeling perpetually agitated, and because of that, their nervous system never calms down and this is what disrupts their entire life. By using neurofeedback, we basically allow the brain to find its way back by giving it information. Once that person experiences that for a while, then that person can live comfortably.”

In part, neurofeedback involves: “Neurofeedback is direct training of brain function, by which the brain learns to function more efficiently. We observe the brain in action from moment to moment. We show that information back to the person. And we reward the brain for changing its own activity to more appropriate patterns. This is a gradual learning process. It applies to any aspect of brain function that we can measure. Neurofeedback is also called EEG Biofeedback. Neurofeedback is training in self-regulation. It is simply biofeedback applied to the brain directly. Self-regulation is a necessary part of good brain function. Self-regulation training allows the system (the central nervous system) to function better.”

According to the EEG Institute’s site, care is “typically provided by mental health professionals such as psychologists, family therapists, and counselors. These professions usually work with clients one-on-one. The training may also be provided by nurses, clinical social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and educators.”

I define psychoactive agents (PA) as those who directly impact the brain and alter the 3 Ms (mind, mood, and motor). Additionally, they directly impact the body’s shock absorber system, consisting of the limbic regionand the three neurohormonal axes (HPT, HPA, and HPG). It is commonly accepted in clinical domains, that psychoactive agents cause neuromodulation of neurons and key neurotransmitters.

There are 3 main psychokinetic actions of PA substances on these neurotransmitters: they can mimic, boost and block. In time and without clinical intervention, neuromodulation can become permanent, which I consider to be a state of persisting organic brain syndrome. So, the treatment stakes are dire!

In general, positive outcomes in the treatment of SUD are modest. Many clients will relapse 2 to 4 times before either dying prematurely or gaining lifetime sobriety.

Neurofeedback is known to be useful in the treatment of a number of behavioral health disorders including PTSD, ADHD and autism, to name just a few. Research to date indicates its additive efficacy when combined with other known clinical approaches for SUD. It is possible, that following NFB, the use of therapeutic, psychotropic medications over time, may be reduced.

The number and duration of treatment sessions involving NFB is unknown to me. I doubt that as a sole intervention, it evidences any side-effects or adverse events. The actual cost of this care is unclear. According to the site noted earlier, commercial heath insurance may cover some of it. In all, I am optimistic about the usefulness of NFB as an additional approach to treating substance abuse.


Brown, J. 2014. (26 February). Neurofeedback: If It Can Help PTSD Veterans, Why Not Addicts, Alcoholics and Those With Sleep Disorder? The FIX.

Image via Steve Buckley / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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