Neurofeedback, ADHD and Medication

In his Attention Research Update, September 2007, David Rabiner, Ph.D. Senior Research Scientist, Duke University, entitled his article, How Strong is the Research Support for Neurofeedback Treatment? The report is rather perfunctory and the staid course he’s followed for years. A fresh, candid review must be performed regarding research on multi-modal treatments, neurofeedback, and medication.

Therefore, my intent here is to examine multi-modal treatments, neurofeedback, medication, their accompanying controversy and myth, and research support. I’m certain you’ll find this examination both enlightening and substantially different perceptively.

I will use some of Dr. Rabiner’s statements and also attempt to make sense of the misinformation that is propagated intentionally or unintentionally through CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit /Hyperactivity Disorder).

For the purpose of full disclosure when writing this entry:

Play Attention

I should disclose that I developed Play Attention, a device that monitors brain activity. It is used educationally to teach cognitive skills, improve attention, and shape behavior. It is not clinical neurofeedback. To be candid, I’m not a proponent of clinical neurofeedback for reasons I’ll describe below.

Dr. David Rabiner

Furthermore, it should also be disclosed that the Dr. Rabiner’s newsletter is funded by CogMed, a group that sells memory games to address ADHD, and Shire pharmaceuticals, the makers of Adderall and other ADHD medications.

Play Attention has paid Dr. Rabiner in the past to advertise in his newsletter. Dr. Rabiner also sat on the advisory board for Play Attention for several years. Play Attention can no longer advertise in Dr. Rabiner’s newsletter due to his contractual obligations with CogMed. CogMed will no longer allow Dr. Rabiner to sit on Play Attention’s advisory board either.

CHADD & Neurofeedback

CHADD is listed as a nonprofit organization, but still receives significant financial support from the pharmaceutical industry. Historically, it has done little else other than offer tips and strategies and support the use of medicine as a primary treatment.

According to Dr. Rabiner’s newsletter, CHADD’s stance on neurofeedback is summarized in their fact sheet on alternative and complementary interventions, which includes the following statement about neurofeedback:

It is important to emphasize, however, that although several studies of neurofeedback have yielded promising results, this treatment has not yet been tested in the rigorous manner that is required to make a clear conclusion about its effectiveness for AD/HD. The aforementioned studies can not be considered to have produced persuasive scientific evidence concerning the effectiveness of EEG biofeedback for ADHD.”

Well, if we hold EEG biofeedback (neurofeedback) to this “rigorous manner that is required to make a clear conclusion about its effectiveness for AD/HD,” it is only fair to hold every intervention including medication and multi-modal interventions to it as well.

Quite frankly, you’ll be surprised that they do not live up to this standard either. The actual research about medication is really no stronger than that for neurofeedback. It seems we have double talk here by an organization that receives funding from the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps, given the benefit of the doubt, they just aren’t aware of it.

ADHD Medication Research
While it received little press in 2005, the Drug Effectiveness Review Project, based at Oregon State University released a 731-page report which thoroughly analyzed 2,287 studies – virtually every investigation ever done on ADHD drugs anywhere in the world – to reach its conclusions. To date, it is the most thorough and comprehensive evaluation of all research performed on ADHD drugs.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports report the data to their respective audiences. Fourteen states other than Oregon are the principal financiers the Drug Effectiveness Review Project.

The prestigious Oregon Evidence-based Practice Center, Oregon Health & Science University Drug Effectiveness Review Project’s primary purpose is to provide consumers and state insurance plans trustworthy information about pharmaceuticals. The Drug Effectiveness Review Project’s physicians and pharmacists don’t just analyze ADHD medications, so this was not an attempt to subvert or smear that industry. They analyze virtually every study on a given class of pharmaceuticals to determine the best drugs in that class and present their findings to the public and insurance industry. The Project examined 27 drugs which included Adderall, Concerta, Cylert, Focalin, Provigil, Ritalin, Strattera, and others.

In its analysis of published and unpublished research data produced by six prominent ADHD medication producers, the group found that 2,107 studies were unreliable and were subsequently rejected. Now, this is telling in itself. Finding 2,107 funded yet critically poor or fundamentally flawed studies performed by universities and the pharmaceutical industry itself speaks volumes to the nature of that research and those people responsible for it.

The Project began its review of the remaining 180 studies which demonstrated good controls and methods. Its conclusions regarding ADHD medication were quite astounding.

Here, bulleted, are some incredible results with comments:

• “No evidence on long-term safety of drugs used to treat ADHD in young children” or adolescents. Now, if you ask any physician, or the pharmaceutical industry, they will tell you the drugs are completely safe for long-term use based on research. That research doesn’t exist.

• The research providing any evidence of safety is of “poor quality.” This includes research regarding the possibility that some ADHD drugs could cause heart or liver conditions, tics, or stunt growth.

• “Good quality evidence … is lacking” that ADHD drugs demonstrate improvement in “global academic performance, consequences of risky behaviors, social achievements,” and other measures. The common perception is that ADHD drugs do improve academic performance and social skills. Many drug makers use ads depicting this. However, evidence for long-term improvement in academics, social skills, or behavior is virtually non-existent.

• Drug makers have found that they can expand their market by inducing adults into the ADHD experience. However, the Project found that evidence “is not compelling” demonstrating that ADHD drugs actually help adults, nor is there evidence that one drug “is more tolerable than another.”

Furthermore, the Project found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require pharmaceutical manufacturers to compare newly developed medications with medications currently on the shelf. Most companies simply use a placebo or sugar pill given instead of their medication as a control. Therefore the Project found that “good quality” studies are lacking that pit one drug against another to provide evidence of effectiveness. It also could not find comparative data which might help determine which ADHD medications are less likely to produce detrimental side effects like heart and liver problems, depression, decreased appetite, tics, or seizures.

The Project could not find research that clearly provided an understanding of way that ADHD drugs work. It is not well understood for most ADHD drugs.

Even the research on ADHD performed by the respected Dr. Russell Barkley, a critic of neurofeedback studies, ranked only “fair” in the Project’s analysis of research and he’s had significant funding from the pharmaceutical industry, federal government, and universities. Noting that he’s cited most neurofeedback research as lacking, wouldn’t we expect at least a “good” or even a “superior” on his report card?

So, if one chooses ADHD medication, how does one know which drug is safer? Works better? Has fewer side effects? The research isn’t there, so we don’t know. In light of this, the Project suggested that one may do just as well on methylphenidate (generic Ritalin) which is far less expensive than newer options such as Concerta or Adderall. Incidentally, when the Project reviewed research on Concerta, it concluded that Concerta “did not show overall difference in outcomes” compared to generic good old cheap generic methylphenidate. Is Adderall any better? The Project found evidence to be “lacking.”

Do ADHD drugs provide long-term improvement for academic performance? Social interaction? Better behavior? The research just isn’t there.

The Project made clear that its findings do not mean ADHD drugs are unsafe. They may be safe and sometimes useful, but the Project found scientific proof is lacking.

While I’m not a clinical neurofeedback proponent, I think it’s clear that if pundits like Dr. Rabiner and organizations like CHADD are going to talk about good research, then let’s level the playing field and have the same requirements for everyone.

Standards of Research, Dr. Rabiner, & CHADD

Let’s go back to CHADD for a moment and its warnings about neurofeedback.

“Controlled randomized trials are required before conclusions can be reached. Until then, buyers should beware of the limitations in the published science. Parents are advised to proceed cautiously as it can be expensive – a typical course of neurofeedback treatment may require 40 or more sessions – and because other AD/HD treatments (i.e., multi-modal treatment) currently enjoy substantially greater research support.

Now, let’s examine the 3-Year Follow-up of the NIMH MTA (multi-modal treatment) Study. CHADD states studies such as this most recent one and most thorough one “enjoy substantially greater research support.” :

According to Dr. Rabiner, neurofeedback studies, while often producing good results, often lack random assignment. Here’s what he states in his current newsletter:

    Random Assignment

    Imagine that you are testing a new medication treatment for ADHD with 50 children who have been carefully diagnosed. In a random assignment study, whether each child is assigned to the treatment or control condition is determined by chance – you could flip a coin and give the medicine to the ‘heads’ and nothing to the ‘tails’. This insures that any differences that might exist between children who get the medication and those who don’t are purely chance differences. At the end of the study, if those who received the medicine are doing better, you could feel confident that this is probably due to the medicine itself, and not to differences that may have been there before the treatment even started.

    What if you didn’t use random assignment, but let each child’s parents choose whether their child is in the treatment or control group? In this case, it is possible that children in the 2 groups differed in important ways before the treatment began. If children who received the medication were doing better at the end of the study, it might be because of differences that were there to start with.

    For example, parents who chose the medicine might be more willing to pursue other ways to help their child than those who didn’t. The fact that children who received the medication were doing better at the end of the study might thus have nothing to do with the medicine itself, but reflect other things their parents were doing to help them. No matter how hard you might try to rule out these other possible explanations – and I’m sure you can think of many others – you could never do this with certainty. Thus, I might reasonably doubt that your new medication is really effective.

National Institutes of Mental Health Multi-Modal Treatment Study

But if Dr. Rabiner is correct that research without random assignment is ambiguous, possibly not valid, then let’s try to evaluate data from the 3-Year Follow-up of the NIMH MTA (Multi-Modal Treatment) Study. Let’s look at the researchers said about the 14th month:

    Indeed, once the delivery of randomly assigned treatments by MTA staff stopped at 14 months, the MTA became an observational study in which subjects and families were free to choose their own treatment but in the context of availability and barriers to care existing in their communities.

So what are we to gain from the long-term evaluation done in the MTA study? Does it enjoy substantially greater research support? According to Dr. Rabiner’s standards, not if it became an observational study.

CHADD also warns that neurofeedback is expensive. How expensive is it compared to ongoing medication for a lifetime? We’ll that’s relative isn’t it? How expensive is medication to a single mom with no insurance? Heck, to any parent with or without insurance? To grandparents raising their grandchild in mom’s absence? And by taking medication, which is expensive (Concerta, AdderallXR), etc, are we guaranteed anything more than what neurofeedback might offer? According to available research, No. CHADD’s arguments lack substance but have been their common response for a long time. I am asking that this nonsense ends.


Back to neurofeedback…The primary purpose of neurofeedback is to alter brainwave patterns that are presented in real-time feedback to clients. Clients [Rabiner] “…are trained to alter their brainwave activity and taught to alter their typical EEG pattern to one that is consistent with a focused and attentive state. According to neurofeedback proponents, when this occurs, improved attention and reduced hyperactive/impulsive behavior will result.”

Thus, the fundamental premise behind neurofeedback is that brainwaves are dysregulated, especially in certain areas of the brain, and training can regulate them. Furthermore, it is proposed that this regulation improves attention and behaviors. I find this to be rather facile. Neurofeedback’s premise is surprisingly similar to medication in essence; fix these brainwaves and the person is fixed whereas proponents of drug intervention insist that if one takes a pill ADHD is fixed! Unfortunately, neither of these therapies adequately fully addresses core issues of ADHD. Neither medication or neurofeedback, by themselves teach the skills one needs to survive and thrive in the workplace or classroom. Skills like organization, improved memory, discriminatory processing, auditory processing, time-on-task, etc. are not trained through either of these interventions. The only way to attain them is to train and learn them.

I’m not saying that neurofeedback doesn’t work. It’s been field tested as has been medication for years. Could it be a worthwhile tool to be used in a multi-modal plan? Yes. Again, let’s level the playing field.

Current Neuroscience & Neuroplasticity vs. Current ADHD Interventions

The reality about neurobehavioral problems is that they exist in a context, i.e. they exist because of the brain and because of that brain’s environment. The brain is directly affected by its environment. The brain is neuroplastic; it will and does adapt according to the stimulation it receives. That is conclusive fact. No doubt about it. So, if we are speaking about a human being, then attention problems are not just brain based. They may take root there, but they are also directly related to and affected by one’s environment. Therefore, appropriate environmental factors play a great role in the treatment of ADHD including behavior shaping, consistent reward/consequences, structure, etc.

The fact that our current system doesn’t address this fact is where we fall far short of correctly treating ADHD.

Let’s say that little Jimmy demonstrates some fidgeting and inattention at school. His teacher writes a note home telling Jimmy’s parents she suspects Jimmy may have ADHD. Jimmy’s parents take heed and bring him to the pediatrician where Jimmy gets a prescription for medication within 20 minutes. This is the norm.

What’s sorely missing is where Jimmy’s parents or Jimmy’s pediatrician write a note back asking to speak to the teacher to develop a plan of action regarding Jimmy’s behavior before beginning medication. This should be our standard practice regarding ADHD. We need to change the way we view ADHD and the way we address ADHD according to current neuroscience, not how we addressed it in 1980.

Unfortunately, most pediatricians or general practitioners are quite overwhelmed and not well equipped educationally to provide a full battery of tests taking up to four or five hours for an accurate diagnosis. So, a reverse diagnosis is made; the MD writes the prescription for medication and if it works, it was ADHD!

The problem is that stimulant medication works for everyone. If we have two groups of children, one group diagnosed with ADHD and one group of average children, both given boring tasks, both medicated, who will do better on the boring tasks? The answer is: Both! Medication is a shotgun approach that teaches nothing. Virtually no research demonstrates long-term efficacy in social improvement, academic improvement, or behavioral improvement.

Attention is a skill like any other skill. It can be considered a cognitive skill that is measured by behavioral or performance analysis. Should strategies, known to work to improve performance on ADHD students be attempted before medication or neurofeedback? Yes. Resoundingly yes! Should Jimmy’s parents adopt a structured, consistent schedule at home? Yes. Should Jimmy’s parents develop a behavioral plan for school and home working together with Jimmy’s teacher? Yes. Should all of this be employed before neurofeedback and medication? Yes. Could it be employed while using either medication or neurofeedback? Yes. Is it far less expensive than these other interventions? Yes.

Why don’t we do this first then? While a variety of factors relate to the answer, one of the most significant ones is: It is easier to take a pill or to ask someone else to solve your problem than it is to do the work to solve it yourself. Granted, many parents are not trained to work with ADHD children, but they can learn and need to – it’s part of being a parent.

I’ll quote the respected psychologist, Dr. Abraham Maslow –

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Here’s how this quote relates to our current dilemma: Many parents rely on their Doctor’s opinion alone believing the physician is almost all knowing. Doctors, pediatricians included, are sparsely trained to instruct parents or educators on how to facilitate a multi-modal management plan. Instead, as they are instructed from medical school and because medicals schools rely heavily on pharmaceutical money, they are given the only answer: drugs. It is only natural that parents believe this. Unfortunately, neither the medical industry, pundits, or CHADD are familiar with research regarding medication or either choose to ignore it.

Neurofeedback Controversy

Back to Dr. Rabiner’s newsletter, this segment entitled, Controversy Surrounding Neurofeedback Research.

Neurofeedback treatment for ADHD has been a source of substantial controversy in the field for many years and remains so today. Although there are a number of published studies in which positive results have been reported, many prominent ADHD researchers feel that given significant limitations to the design and implementation of these studies, neurofeedback should be considered a promising, but unproven treatment.

I think it’s quite reasonable to say that the ‘controversy’ surrounding neurofeedback is constantly stirred up by articles such as Dr. Rabiner’s. He also says that neurofeedback studies sometimes suffer from smaller populations, etc. It does make good press, but given significant limitations to the design and implementation of studies on multi-modal treatments and pharmaceuticals, they should all be considered promising, but unproven treatments. Neurofeedback research seems to suffer the same dilemma as that of multi-modal and pharmaceutical interventions – all could be far stronger. All have considerable weaknesses. All have some strengths because they’ve been field tested for many years. So, either they are all controversial, or none of them is controversial. It’s far past time to stop double talking.


Neither medication nor neurofeedback are solutions unto themselves.

Without hidden agendas or profit motives they are on the same playing field. Now, let’s play fair and develop strategies based on our knowledge of the ADHD problem. It’s in the best interest of our children and their outcomes to find workable, manageable solutions.

Obviously, no one intervention is best, proven, or more reliable even if marketing people would like to make it seem so. It takes a whole village to raise a child. It takes a group of interventions to raise an ADHD child. Let’s find the best interventions, based on honest available research, use them in concert, and see if it works. And understand this caveat clearly, just because research, no matter how high a grade it’s given, demonstrates efficacy, it doesn’t mean that it will work successfully for you or your child. That’s just because we’re human. We learn differently, respond differently, and are wired differently based on our years of exposure to the world and our genetic makeup. That’s not theory. That’s fact.

Given that no intervention is sufficient by itself, it will always be a matter of trail and error to determine what course of actions will succeed for the long-term. Even though we desire or wish it, none are guaranteed, but that’s life, isn’t it?