PLYMOUTH MEETING, Pa. -- Eight-year-old Patrick Steenson was working hard to rack up points on his Superman computer game.
He used no joystick, no mouse. Only his brain controlled the computer.
Patrick was in the midst of a biofeedback session to train his brain to produce more fast brain waves and fewer slow ones. He had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, a common neurological disorder that makes it hard for children to sit still, concentrate and learn.
A tiny electrode attached to his head was monitoring his brain's electrical activity and converting that information into the computer program.
When Patrick's mind was alert and his body calm, Superman flew high and steady, a bell rang and points piled up. When Patrick became restless and lost concentration, Superman dipped, the bells stopped, a red light flashed, and he scored no points.
The hope was that by the time Patrick completed 40 sessions, he would be better able to pay attention and stay on task.
"What we see with kids with ADD [attention deficit disorder] and ADHD is that their brains are under-aroused. The brain is producing too much slow-wave activity," said Domenic Greco, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Patrick was getting his biofeedback sessions at NeuroDynamix, a Philadelphia area company where Greco is clinical director.
(ADHD is characterized by impulsive behavior and hyperactivity. It occurs more often in boys than in girls. ADD is characterized by an inability to focus, pay attention and organize.)
Through a system of "practice and feedback," Greco said, people with attention problems can learn to produce more of the fast waves associated with being calm, alert and focused. While such neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, has been around for more than a decade, it is attracting more interest lately as parents look for alternative ways to treat their children with attention problems -- a trend occurring in many fields of medicine.
Some parents won't consider giving their children a drug to treat ADHD. Others want to wean their children from medication such as Ritalin, which is considered standard treatment for ADHD, because it has lost its effectiveness or is causing side effects.
"We are not curing someone of ADHD," Greco said. "We're teaching them self-regulation."
The observations of him and other practitioners are backed up by some published scientific articles reporting varying degrees of success with neurofeedback.
But critics say the method is unproven and that there have been no carefully controlled, double-blind studies done to say whether it has merit. They worry that parents are turning their backs on proven treatment and throwing away their money, typically $3,000 or more for a 40-session program.
It is estimated that 3 percent to 5 percent of school-age children may be affected by ADHD, and some studies put the number much higher. Children with the condition often can't concentrate in school, get bad grades and have difficulty getting along with peers because of their impulsivity. A recent study found that teens with the disorder who are not treated with drugs are at risk for substance abuse.
"My own assessment of neurofeedback is that it is at best still an experimental treatment, that the amount of research is very, very limited," said Russell Barkley, director of psychology and professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, who is a leading expert on ADHD.
"I count fewer than five studies that could be classified as studies and they have mixed, if not disappointing, results," he said. "My own feeling is that the hoopla around it, the promotions about it far outstrip any good scientific evidence."
Barkley and other critics don't dispute that those with ADHD have differences in their brain-wave patterns. …