The brain is a complicated country, the tools for treating its maladies always in rapid evolution. One man here has been utilizing a "low-energy" neurofeedback system, or LENS, since October to treat patients with mental illness. The apparently simple program of receiving frequencies to "correct" the brain's negative patterns, gaining ground in the medical community, has also yielded largely positive patient response.
North Adams practitioner Peter May said that LENS is applicable to problems including attention deficit, autism, migraines, insomnia, brain injury and anxiety.
"The brain sometimes gets stuck in maladaptive patterns," said May, a chiropractor by training. "[LENS] acts as a catalyst to activate your brain's self-regulatory capacity to optimize brain function."
May wields the LENS computer program and series of sensors that attach to the patient's earlobes and around the skull over a series of treatments.
Dr. Mary O'Malley, a psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center who has trained in neurofeedback, said LENS has a good reputation in her field. Its practitioners need not be physicians, she added.
"These [neurofeedback] are potent tools, and it's great to see that they're getting more use out in the medical system and elsewhere," she said.
O'Malley explained the process simply: "It looks at how the brain is a little bit stuck ... then asks the brain to shift out of being stuck using low-impulse frequencies.
LENS won't help everybody, May said, but out of the 60 or so people he's treated since he started in October, only about 10 percent haven't seen improvements.
O'Malley pointed out that LENS is often used in conjunction with other clinical diagnosing techniques -- which May doesn't do. However, she said, even just the technology itself can be helpful.
That said, not all those who work with the brain feel as confident in LENS's potency on its own.
Beth Adams, a neuro-trauma rehabilitation specialist in Salem, is more circumspect that neurofeedback alone could create lasting change in a patient with a brain injury, which is one of the ailments May lists as being able to treat.
Adams, who is also on the board of directors for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, wasn't familiar with LENS specifically, but said that a combination of therapy, medications and neuro-psychological evaluation are methods that could better facilitate brain-injury healing.
"If somebody is wanting to facilitate neurofeedback, look at the big picture to encompass all types of therapies," she said.
May feels that the patient responses speak for themselves.
May's patient Ashley, 17, who requested not to have her last name printed to protect her privacy, came to May for LENS treatment after years of poor luck treating ADD, depression and anxiety. She dropped out of high school after her junior year because of emotional problems that medications like Wellbutrin and Paxil weren't ameliorating.
As of this week, Ashley has received four LENS treatments, and her mother said her improvement in mood was almost instant.
"She used to say, ‘I just want to know what's wrong with my brain,'" her mother said. "When we left his office [the first time], she said, ‘I feel like a weight's been lifted off my shoulders."
At May's request, patients write a record of their feelings after treatment, and the compilation has a litany of stories like Ashley's -- the somber, difficult child who suddenly is willing to rake leaves with his siblings; the parents who stop yelling at their children; the depressive kid who begins to take an interest in a sick relative. People also reported negative effects, like spikes in anger, which May believes is the brain's way of beginning to address its dysfunction.
"This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen," May said, gesturing at the book of comments he keeps in his office. "I could read this forever."
Ashley's mother said she is still somewhat dubious of the method. However, she pointed out, the price of treatment -- $160 the first time; $60 after that -- is on par with what she'd spend on her daughter's medications anyway, and May never promised her instant healing.
In short, it doesn't seem like a gimmick, she said -- that, and it seems to be working.
"I was very skeptical, and I still am," her mother said. "But I can honestly say that I have seen a change in [Ashley] since we started the program."
Ashley said that her anxiety is gone, she's more comfortable in social situations and is having an easier time concentrating while working toward her GED and looking for a job. She's still seeing her psychiatrist but is off all her medications, her mother said.
"This has helped me more than any medication or any therapy session has in my entire life," Ashley said.
O'Malley, the BMC psychiatrist, said that LENS and neurofeedback is a treatment alternative that she views as a useful tool in the difficult terrain of mental illness.
"In general, I think people should be their own judge and not look to this as a panacea, obviously," she said. "But very plausibly it could be a better solution to existing problems if they haven't gotten relief elsewhere."
To reach Amanda Korman:
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