The best neurofeedback system is the one that fits your budget and your experience level.
Your neurofeedback software and hardware are your work tools. Your choice of configuration will determine what you’re able to do with your equipment, so getting the right tools matters.
Your neurofeedback software is your main tool – the interface between the brainwave data and the feedback. At its core, all neurofeedback software is signal processing software. It allows you to make a series of arguments to control the feedback.
For example, the software lets you say; ‘When this brainwave frequency in this spot increases, play this video’.
Each of these logical arguments is called a ‘metric’. If you set your software to train one frequency band in one spot, is one metric. Two frequency bands in two spots are 4 metrics, and so on.
The various neurofeedback configurations are best described in terms of what they can do; how many metrics they can train, what type of metrics (power, coherence, phase etc.), and what general capabilities they have.
Your training options increase exponentially with the number of sensors you use.
With one sensor, you can train the local area under the sensor, one or two metrics at a time.
For example you could say ‘when this brainwave frequency increases in this spot, activate the feedback’. Decreasing activity is done in reverse. This is called ‘absolute’ training; training the total power (amplitude) of the brainwave.
A single sensor also lets train the ratio between two frequencies. You could say ‘when this brainwave decreases relative to that one, activate the feedback’. As you would guess, this is called ‘ratio’ training.
Prices: $100 to $500 all in.
There are a few things to avoid when choosing your software; the major considerations are compatibility and flexibility.
If your software is compatible with several different amplifiers, you will have greater flexibility to upgrade or change later on. You don’t want to end up stuck with one type of amplifier just because your software is incompatible with any other type, and vice-versa.
Bearing in mind that much of the neurofeedback software out there is built by engineers rather than therapists, it’s important to get an interface that is flexible enough to suit any training requirement. If you want to do a certain type of training and your software can’t do it, the training is not at its best.
Package systems (pre-configured or trademarked neurofeedback packages) are notorious for inflexibility and incompatibility. Restricting your options is one of the ways that they lock you into their way of doing things.
If you are shopping around and talking to sales teams, keep a sharp eye out for any and all sales double-speak. Whatever their claims, there is nothing new under the sun. If the product is relatively expensive, is ‘uniuqe’, and the team are evasive about exactly what it does and how it does it (trade secret, patented method etc.) then look elsewhere. It’s neuro-hooey.
Most of the long-termers in the field use very fancy equipment – better tools improve the quality of their work. However, if you start out with this level of equipment you never learn the basics.
I suggest starting with an inexpensive two sensor system ($1000 to $2000), using open market software that is universally compatible. It will allow you to learn the basics and give you a better idea as to where you want to go from there.
When upgrading, be aware that the transition from individual sensors to 19 sensor / LoRETA training is seldom smooth. Investing 10 to 15 times the amount on equipment for a third the number of sessions per client takes a strong business base, and careful planning.
Once you have chosen your basic approach, it is time to move on to Brain mapping and session planning
When a client comes to you with an issue that they’d like to resolve, you need to determine what type of training will be the most effective for them.
There are several methods to do this. It can be done by symptoms alone, by Mini-Q, or using a QEEG.
This method is prescriptive; the protocols are pre-designed to be the most common solution for any given complaint.
The upside is that it takes almost no training to do. The downside is that is may not be the area of concern; obviously, it’s better to check and see if that is the actual problem area or not.
For example; a client walks into your office to improve his concentration. On a brain level, there can be many different reasons for the symptom of ‘poor concentration’. Perhaps it’s just dreamy distraction, perhaps it’s injury, perhaps anxiety to a level that few brain resources are left to focus with.
If you don’t look at the brain activity you won’t know which, hence symptom based protocols are not the best way to go.
Outside of a few pre-packaged systems and clinical studies (where standardisation is a requirement), symptom based protocol selection is rarely used.
Just to complicate things a little more, there are a few different approaches to brain mapping.
The most common type is a resting state brain map. This is when the brainwave recording is taken while the client is in a still, neutral state. This gives you a picture of the brain’s default state at rest, and a good idea of their emotional propensities or difficulties.
Ultimately, it’s these are the underlying emotional moods that you want to shift, so QEEG’s are a great way to target them accurately.
Once the training plan is made, it is time to run your protocol.
Now that you have collected your brain map data, you are ready to build your neurofeedback protocol.
A protocol is the actual training delivered to the client; a combination of the sensor location(s) and the brain activity trained at there. Often, you will run several different protocols in one session, each targeting different areas.
Creating the protocols is your primary role as a therapist; this is where the art and skill lies. It takes training, practice, and is well beyond the scope of this piece.
What I can do is give you an overview of the choices you have, and what they mean to your sessions.
The threshold is what activates the feedback, and tells the client when he is approaching the goal and when not. An example would be ‘when the Alpha brainwaves rise above this level, activate the feedback’. This level is the threshold.
There are two ways of setting this threshold.
The first is manually. You can watch the data, and manually set a bar to reach. Above that level, the feedback starts, below that level it stops. When the client improves, you make it a bit harder. When they tire, you make it a bit easier. You’re engaged with the training.
Automatic thresholds work a little differently. The software makes the difficulty level adjustments automatically. Auto-thresholds are a huge labour and skill saver, as you start the protocol and go hands-off from there. The main downside is that the skill level is constantly changing, so the client has no clear target to reach.
So, be sure your software has the option of manual thresholding.
Next, you’ll need some neurofeedback hardware.
Now that you have chosen your configuration and method, you’ll need hardware to suit. You’re only as good as your tools, and getting it right the first time saves expense down the line.
Several components are needed – sensors to detect the brainwave signals, an amplifier to convert it into digital data, and a computer to process it.
Your training is only as good as your detection equipment, so sensors matter.
There are several different types of sensors available.
The most common electrodes (sensors) are either sintered Silver-Silver Chloride (Ag/AgCl) or Gold. Individual sensors attach to the scalp using a conductive paste (EEG paste), or a full sensor cap connects to the scalp using a conductive gel (Electrogel).
They make an excellent contact with the scalp, have low environmental interference, and give a strong, reliable signal. That is why they are the clinical standard. The downside is the ‘goo-factor’ – the residual gel or paste left in the client’s hair.
Silver Chloride sensors generally sell for $10 each, or a full 19 sensor cap sells for about for $350.
Now that you have an idea as to what configuration you’d like, it’s time to look for an amplifier to fit your need (and your budget).
A single sensor system with a wet sensor (above) could go for as little as $120. A two sensor amp sells for between $600 and $2000, while a 19ch amplifier will run between $5500 and $10,000.
You want an EEG amplifier with good shielding against environmental noise (to keep your signal clean), one that is durable, and most of all has good customer service in case of a problem. The latter can be the hardest to find.
Also, it’s really nice if it has standard sensor ports, and doesn’t need a special type.
A choice of bitrates (bps, or bits per second) is handy. The minimum clinical spec is 250bps, though some can reach up to 8000bps. Counter-intuitively, the faster your bitrate, the better resolution you have on slow wave signals. The only reason to have bitrates above 2048bps is for infra-low training.
Another thing to check is whether it uses sequential or simultaneous sampling; whether it takes its samples one sensor at a time, or all together in one stream. For example, it might take a bit of data from sensor 1, then sensor 2, and so on, or it may collect all at once. Most therapists in-the=know prefer simultaneous sampling, though it does cost a little more.
A good precaution is to get an amplifier that is compatible with many software platforms. Some amplifiers only work with the software provided with it, so if it doesn’t fit you need or you need to upgrade, you will need to buy another amp. It’s an expensive error.
Once you decide on your software, you will know the required specs for your computer.
It is always a good idea to get a computer that’s a bit faster than the minimum requirement. If you are spending thousands on your hardware, don’t skimp on the last bit.
A computer with an i7 quad core processor, 8GB of ram and at least 2GB of video memory will be fine for just about any software platform. These run between $1000 and $1500.
If you use a mac, then it’s time to buy a PC.
Now that you have chosen your methods, software, and hardware, it’s time to get some training.
Once you have decided which software, methods, and equipment suits your need, you will need to find traiing in that method.
There are a number of great neurofeedback courses out there, in whatever method you want to learn. A variety of courses are regularly held in the States, Netherlands, and Germany. A beginners course usually runs about $1200, plus travel expenses.
Trademark neurofeedback systems include basic training as part of the package (a few days to a couple of weeks). They teach you enough to place the sensors and operate the software, but never enough to become independent. It’s an ‘affiliate’ business model under a different name.
Often, your neurofeedback equipment manufacturer or software provider run training courses. This is usually a great way to get started, and you can branch out from there. Taking a variety of courses gives you a wide skill base.
A teacher that gives ongoing support and mentoring is important. Like any profession, don’t count on being completely independent for the first three to five years. All in all, budget in a good $15k to $30k over the term.