The Marijuana Solution: Neurofeedback

The legalization of recreational marijuana in California has passed. A Marijuana Tsunami may be coming for us at full force and it will have a profound effect on the Golden State: politically, economically and socially. Without a doubt, California itself creates the image of sunny beaches, palm trees, surfers and mellow people. Reallyreally mellow people. This California “stoner” stereotype lingers in the mind of international admirers and detractors alike. And now it’s going to get serious.

Prop 64 will affect brains of smokers everywhere

Americans have doubled their rate of marijuana smoking between the years 2001–2002 and 2012–2013. This along with a substantial increase in the rate of people meeting criteria for Cannabis Use Disorder. Recent national surveys conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2015) identified that 3 in 10 marijuana users meet the criteria for problematic use, shattering the myth of the carefree that “marijuana is just a plant.”

56% of Californians favored and voted for the Prop 64 measure. But despite the advantageous monetary and health benefits cannabis poses, it is also not harmless. Most especially in chronic use, marijuana can be detrimental to brain function. However, there’s a certain nonchalance with recreational users that marijuana is not as harmful since they don’t smoke daily. The Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery, or MIND, is a 2-year-old project at the McLean Hospital in Boston that has been conducting longitudinal studies of medical marijuana. A recent study published by their research team discovered that even chronic recreational users had substandard executive and cognitive functioning, specifically when marijuana use started during teenage years (2016).

So, how can one moderate and regulate normal brain function?

Neurofeedback

Overactivation and underactivation in specific locations of the brain can cause stress or anxiety, depression, high impulsivity, attentional issues, sleep disturbances, and lack of mental clarity (to name a few). Neurofeedback is a brain training technique that teaches the brain to autonomously regulate itself through visual and audio feedback that guides one’s brain activity in real time to increase or decrease certain brainwaves. Historically, EEG biofeedback (neurofeedback) has been the primary technique in the neurotherapy field, but with rapid, renaissance advancements undergoing in technology, it has also developed into fMRI neurofeedback. Whether one struggles with addiction, another mental health issue or learning disorder; the overall premise of neurofeedback is to drive plasticity in improving brain function.

We all have brains, which means we all can shift brain functions through neurofeedback.

Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level here and in most other countries worldwide. It is often still considered a “gateway drug,” and along with its illegal status, hinders any opportunities for proper scientific research. However, pioneers in the field, researchers and clinicians alike, have noticed that some marijuana users smoke less and have a lower tolerance to the drug with once they start doing neurofeedback.

For example, Drs. Siegfried and Susan Othmer — both trailblazers in neurofeedback since the 1980’s have observed that:

What is so interesting in our clinical experience is that a number of people gave up marijuana without ever intending to do so. The desire to stop using is certainly helpful in the recovery process, but it is apparently not necessary. We’ve seen the same thing with tobacco cigarettes and alcohol. These cases are highly significant because if a person stops using after seriously desiring to stop, it is never quite clear what role the neurofeedback played versus the sheer force of will. So it is nice to have this kind of confirmation that we are actually impinging upon the underlying neurophysiological processes involved in sustaining dependency.”

As research on neurofeedback effects on marijuana lack quantitative data, I have posed more questions to top expert in the field, Dr. Siegfried Othmer:

What specific problems or symptoms do heavy marijuana users come to you with? Or is it that they would like to decrease the amount they use?

SIEGFRIED: We see clients who utilize marijuana for a variety of medical purposes. They may be using it to reduce their susceptibility to seizure disorder; they may be using it to manage chronic pain; or they may find it helpful for their bipolar disorder. People in high-pressure job environments may rely on it to calm down at the end of the day. These people are coming to neurofeedback in order to improve their condition, not to get off the marijuana. In most cases, however, successful neurofeedback training allows these people to give up marijuana, and they tend to do so with fair consistency. This tends to happen quite naturally, and our staff is by no means making the marijuana use an issue. The clients simply report that they are cutting back or giving up using, and it will not have been for reasons of effort on their part. They are simply reporting an emerging fact of their lives. They may even be surprised when this happens. We see the same phenomenon with nicotine cigarettes. Smoking may simply subside or cease entirely without any involvement of intentionality or willpower.

Some people think it’s impossible to become addicted to marijuana, however recent research show otherwise. How exactly does an addiction to marijuana form?

SIEGFRIED: Our formal research on recovery from addiction, which goes back to the mid-nineties, found that recovery was independent of the drug of choice. This held for crack cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and alcohol. We now find that it appears to hold for nicotine as well. We don’t have enough data to say that marijuana fits the pattern. Those of our clients who use marijuana recreationally, and who might therefore be candidates for dependency, may very well choose not tell us about their utilization of marijuana.

On the other hand, the consistency in the above pattern of recovery tends to point to a “common pathway” to addiction, and what we know of the neurophysiology certainly supports that. The manifestation of that dependency is craving, and we now find that with our latest techniques we have a substantial likelihood of resolving drug craving. So we seem to be re-normalizing the reward circuitry of our brains with the neurofeedback training.

Has marijuana helped any of your clients deal with other presenting conditions? Addiction to another drug? Anxiety?

SIEGFRIED: Users of medical marijuana who come to us for training are strongly persuaded that the marijuana is helping them, and we have no reason to doubt their report. Indeed, management of anxiety is a prominent issue here. Later, when marijuana use drops off or away entirely, it becomes clear that it was only the medical utility of the drug that was driving events.

Is the effect of neurofeedback different on marijuana users than it is on other drugs?

SIEGFRIED: If anything, the success rate in the case of marijuana utilization is greater than in other cases, but that is only an impression, one that is not backed by data.

The smoking cessation that evolves during the process of neurofeedback training is a phenomenon that has also occurred at Alternatives Brain Institute. The most recent instance was a client suffering from alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. After 20 sessions of training the motor cortex, the client reported improved noticeable changes in sleep architecture, concentration, mood, and the lessened desire to smoke cigarettes. A study published in Neuropsychopharmacology (2015) reported a weaker connection in the posterior insula and sensorimotor cortices that results to relapse vulnerability with smoking. Training those brain sites can perhaps improve connectivity, enabling the ability to inhibit the motor response to smoking. The habit of ‘lighting up’ to relieve moments of stress, according to clinical cases and research, will decline through neurofeedback training. This neurophysiological influence of EEG biofeedback acts as a powerful tool (even more effective with talk therapy) to resolve underlying issues.

Trainees gave up marijuana without intending to do so. Rewarding the brain with the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) brainwave identifies with relaxed attentiveness that has given the resilience of the individuals’ brains to inhibit ‘lighting up’ to smoke, especially when trained on the motor cortex (motor cortex is known to produce movement, but a recent study recognized that it equally suppresses it). This particular 12–15Hz feedback to the brain, and especially the motor cortex, can inhibit motor functions as well as improve sleep and declarative memory.

The thought of legalized marijuana use statewide can inflict a lingering worry on parents and those aware with their marijuana dependencies. Despite its representation as an antidote since the ancient times, marijuana can be beneficial as well as detrimental, however it is difficult to standardize due to individual disparities. But, that does not mean we steer without caution.

Neurofeedback positions itself as the GPS system to your brain. You act as captain and maneuver smoothly.

As we move towards a more brain-health conscious and progressive society, the future of neurofeedback brightens — I see neurofeedback training as the innovative measure that will not only regulate the brains of smokers, but of everyone anywhere.