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Watching Own Brain Activity in Real-Time Helps Avoiding Bad Thoughts, Say Yale Researchers

First Posted: May 10, 2013 03:30 PM EDT

Real-time brain scan readouts apparently enable people to train their own brain and avoid harmful thoughts, especially the type that activates abnormal hyperactivity leading to anxiety. Displaying the activity in specific regions of their brains allows individuals to learn to control that activity and lessen their anxiety, say Yale researchers.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to display the activity of the orbitofrontal cortex -- the brain region just above the eyes -- to subjects while they lay in a brain scanner.

The researchers, who published their findings online in the journal Translational Psychiatry, report that through a process of trial and error, these subjects were gradually able to learn to control their brain activity. This led both to changes in brain connectivity and to increased control over anxiety. These changes were still present several days after the training.

Extreme anxiety associated with worries about dirt and germs is characteristic of many patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hyperactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex is seen in many of these individuals.

fMRI-driven neurofeedback has been used before in a few contexts, but not for the treatment of anxiety, the researchers say. The findings raise the possibility that real-time fMRI feedback may provide a novel and effective form of treatment for OCD.


D Scheinost et al., Orbitofrontal cortex neurofeedback produces lasting changes in contamination anxiety and resting-state connectivity, Translational Psychiatry , 2013, DOI: 10.1038/tp.2013.24 (open access)

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