Approximately 10% to 35% of the world’s population suffers from insomnia. One new study suggests that a placebo can be just as effective as complex neurofeedback training at treating this common sleep problem.
While insomnia is a serious problem throughout the world, few studies have addressed the effectiveness of non-pharmacological treatments.
In a study published in at 2017 edition of the journal Brain, researchers had participants suffering from anxiety undergo neurofeedback treatment and placebo-feedback treatment over a series of weeks.
It turned out that the more complex neurofeedback treatment may not be necessary, because patients who simply believed they were receiving such training experienced the same results.
What exactly is neurofeedback?
Shabus et al. write:
“Neurofeedback training builds upon the simple concept of instrumental conditioning, i.e. behaviour that is rewarded is more likely to reoccur, an effect Thorndike referred to as the ‘law of effect’. In the case of neurofeedback, information about specific 10 electroencephalographic activity is fed back to the participant who is rewarded whenever the desired electroencephalography pattern is generated.”
Previous studies had shown a positive benefit on sleep quality and memory from neurofeedback training, so researchers were interested to see if those results could be replicated in a double-blind placebo controlled study.
In other words, some participants received the real treatment while other received a fake treatment. Neither the participants nor the experimenters knew who was receiving which treatment.
What the experimenters found that was the sham feedback (I.e., the placebo treatment) was just as effective at treating insomnia as the neurofeedback, suggesting that the neurofeedback treatment holds no special efficacy beyond the unspecified placebo effects.
Manuel Shabus, the study’s lead author explained:
“Given our results, one has to question how much of published neurofeeback effects are due to simple expectations on the side of the participants or, in other words, unspecific placebo effects.”
The researchers noted that improvement of symptoms seemed to be related to things such as receiving affection and care rather than the result of the neurofeedback sessions.
The study appears in a 2017 issue of the journal Brain.
Such findings may have important implications in the treatment of insomnia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than one-third of American adults do not get the sleep they need on a regular basis.
Shabus, M., Griessenberger, H., Gnjezda, M.T. Heib, D.P.J., Wislowska, M., & Hoedlmoser, K. (2017). Better than sham? A double-blind placebo-controlled neurofeedback study in primary insomnia. Brain. doi:10.1093/brain/awx011.
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
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