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Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef): Method, Research & Potential Benefits

Neurofeedback is a training technique that helps individuals learn how to self-regulate brain activity with the help of neurological feedback provided by sensory devices.  There are many types of neurofeedback, including: EEG neurofeedback (associated with brain waves), HEG neurofeedback (associated with blood flow), and real-time fMRI neurofeedback (associated with neural activation).  Each of these neurofeedback modalities trains the brain differently based on the specific neurological measures.

Despite the fact that older neurofeedback modalities haven’t been well-researched, there is evidence to suggest that they may improve neuropsychological disorders, enhance cognitive function, and improve brain operating efficiency in healthy individuals.  Another neurofeedback method has emerged with a technique that may seem like something out of a science-fiction movie.  Imagine of you were able to learn a new skill such as how to solve a Rubik’s cube, without any practice?

This new technique called “decoded neurofeedback” or DecNef collects neural activation data from one individual, and records it (based on specific stimuli).  A second individual is primed with the same stimuli, and attempts to match the neural activation of the first individual.  With proper feedback, the second person can mimic the neural activation of the first person, ultimately learning a new skill without any previous practice or experience.

What is Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef)?

Decoded neurofeedback is an fMRI-based technique that involves “decoding” the neural activation of one individual, recording these patterns in a blueprint-like format, and training a second individual to match these patterns using a similarity algorithm.  The theory is that by training a person to induce similar neural patterns to the first individual, a new skill can be learned with no previous training.

Real-time fMRI is important for decoded neurofeedback due to the fact that it allows researchers to create a blueprint-like map of ongoing cortical activation.  This cortical activation can then be trained in a second person with real-time fMRI neurofeedback – training the person to consciously match the first person’s cortical activation based on a similarity index.  It is hypothesized that decoded neurofeedback could allow for instantaneous learning of new motor skills (e.g. playing an instrument).

Preliminary evidence from decoded neurofeedback research suggests that the technique leads to quicker solving of complex visual puzzles.  In fact, one experiment discovered that participants were able to rapidly solve these complex puzzles with no previous exposure.  This rapid puzzle solving ability is believed to have been directly trained and ultimately learned via decoded neurofeedback.

How Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef) Works… (Method)

The method of decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) may seem more complex than other forms of neurofeedback.  Below is a breakdown of how decoded neurofeedback works.

1. Attain a neural pattern or template from “Person A”

The first step involved in decoded neurofeedback is to establish a target neural pattern from one individual (Person A).  This target neural pattern may be primed with specific stimuli and is generated from a decoder that deciphers fMRI multi-voxel patterns based on specific brain information.  The target neural pattern as generated by the decoder is then saved and used to train another individual (Person B) to match this pattern.

The target neural pattern should be in accordance with a particular skill or ability that an individual wants to transfer to another individual.  As an example, let’s say you were using decoded neurofeedback to transfer the skill of playing a song on the piano.  You’d hook a professional piano player up to a real-time fMRI scanner and record their neural patterns while playing the song.

Their neural patterns recorded on the real-time fMRI scanner from the professional piano player would then be utilized as the targeted neural pattern or “template.”  Once a specific neural pattern associated with an ability is collected, another person can be trained to match this pattern.

2. Use neural template to train “Person B”

The collected neural template would then be used to train another person how to play the song on the piano, without them having any previous knowledge of the song or piano skill.  The other individual (Person B) would be hooked up to a real-time fMRI neurofeedback device with a feedback algorithm devised to guide their neural activation to match the professional piano player (Person A).  Specifically, Person B’s neural activation will be guided by a real-time reward signal computed by the algorithm of the decoder output.

When the patterns match, a person may see a green light which serves as positive reinforcement – indicating that they’re successfully mimicking the pattern. Should the individual see a red light, it may be a sign that they’re not mimicking the pattern.  While the neural activation of Person B may not completely match that of Person A, it will be considered close enough based on a “similarity index.”

In other words, the activation of Person B’s brain should be similar to Person A’s brain based on each individual’s unique neuroanatomy. The goal of Person B is to continuously master the ability to replicate the targeted neural activation of Person A based on the similarity index.  With enough practice, a person will begin to learn how they can consciously induce this activation within their brain.

3. Repeated neurofeedback practice

During initial training sessions, the person may struggle based on the complexity of the neural template. Just like riding a bike takes practice, learning how to match the targeted neural pattern derived from the piano-playing Person A can take some time.  Initially Person B may find that they’re able to match the pattern, but won’t be able to hold it for very long.

With enough feedback and training, eventually they’ll learn how to activate the targeted neural pattern consciously at will. Depending on the complexity of the pattern and individual’s ability to understand neurofeedback, the duration of learning is subject to individual variation.  In other words, some people may require may, extended sessions to learn a new skill, while others may only require a couple sessions (if it’s an easy skill and they understand how neurofeedback works).

4. Access to new cognitive ability

After Person B has successfully mastered the ability to replicate the neural activation of the professional pianist (Person A), they should be able to play without any previous knowledge.  In other words, the skill mastered by Person A has been transferred to Person B, with no previous experience from Person B.  While it is unlikely that the skill of Person B will be able to match that of Person A, they will be able to perform the activity associated with the targeted brain pattern.

As with most types of neurofeedback, once you learn it, you don’t usually need to re-learn it.  The ability to shift neural activation to match the specific template results in long-term (potentially permanent) access to the new skill.

Decoded Neurofeedback (The Research)

Included below is a synopsis of research in the field of decoded neurofeedback.  At this time, research is relatively limited due to the fact that the technology is new.  As studies involving real-time fMRI neurofeedback continue to gain mainstream popularity, and as technology drops in cost, expect decoded neurofeedback research to blossom in forthcoming years.  Decoded neurofeedback has potential to train you how to consciously control the neural activation and connectivity within your brain.

2015: A report published in 2015 noted that the fields of neuroscience and robotics have experienced major advances in recent years.  The fact that these fields are both rapidly advancing has lead to research incorporating aspects of both.  Research that incorporates both neuroscience and robotics includes things like: brain-to-brain communication interfaces, bionic implants for PTSD, using your thoughts to control genes with cybernetic implants, and new neurofeedback methods (e.g. real-time fMRI neurofeedback).

Authors of this report highlighted the potential of decoded neurofeedback as a standalone technology, but also as a technology with potential to integrate the study of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and brain-motivated robotics (BMR).   Assuming these technologies could be integrated, this would hold potential to significantly improve efficacy and efficiency of treatments and neuroscientific research.

Decoded neurofeedback was noted as a standalone technology to hold the potential to decipher the neural underpinnings of consciousness.  Most researchers know that neural activation and connectivity influences behavior, cognition, and perception.  Currently it is unknown what neural activation and connectivity patterns lead to specific behaviors and perceptual experiences; many suspect a “cause-and-effect” relationship.

Using decoded neurofeedback will help scientists better understand human learning, memory, and cognitive function.  It will allow researchers to pinpoint neural correlates of the aforementioned functions in real-time.  In addition, decoded neurofeedback will be introduced as a new way to learn information unconsciously with no previous training (such as the piano example mentioned earlier).

They highlighted the results from a study that demonstrated decoded neurofeedback facilitated learning with no visual stimulus nor conscious awareness of the learning.  This occurred in just 5 to 10 days of training and resulted in a group knowing how to perform a visual task (involving target orientation gratings) without previous exposure or learning.  In other words, people essentially trained their brain’s neural circuitry to activate similarly to someone who had learned the task – and they were able to learn it via “neural osmosis.”

What’s even more exciting is that decoded neurofeedback has potential to provide sustained results.  Those experiencing just 3 days of decoded neurofeedback training were able to sustain the effect for over 60 days; this implies long-lasting results from short-term training.  The potential of this technique should be considered limitless in that it may help neuroscientists understand the connectivity and activation associated with neurological and psychiatric conditions.

In addition, authors noted that it has the potential to “cure” some individuals with untreatable diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Even if it doesn’t provide a functional cure for everyone, making use of the technology likely will yield significant improvement; likely more than using medication.  Due to Moore’s law, it is believed that costs and breakthroughs with decoded neurofeedback will continue.

A proposed method of using decoded neurofeedback in the future was in conjunction with a brain-machine interface (BMI).  The brain-machine interface is currently defined as a device that: measures brain activity (via sensors), connects to a computer (that deciphers brain information/stimuli), contains an “effector” system (for kinesthetic stimulation), and provides neural stimulation.  By combining brain-machine interfaces with decoded neurofeedback, the training could be enhanced.

Authors propose a theoretical exoskeleton humanoid robot that would provide kinesthetic stimulation.  This kinesthetic stimulation would enhance the decoded neurofeedback training.  It is likely that combining a brain-machine interface (BMI) with a decoded neurofeedback device would provide superior results (in terms of efficacy and efficiency of training).

This exoskeleton “shell” would cover your body during neurofeedback training.  As an example, just think if you could feel skin compression or a pinch each time you were headed in the wrong direction, but received a soothing massage each time you were successfully activating certain neural regions.  The combination of the proposed brain-machine interface (exoskeleton) with decoded neurofeedback may teach us more about the brain and offer superior therapeutic intervention than modern day treatments.

To complicate things further, researchers discussed the potential of using decoded neurofeedback with a brain-machine interface (the exoskeleton) to improve our ability to control robots (brain-motivated robotics).  In other words, we could train our brains to control robots via decoded neurofeedback.  The trifecta of these emerging technologies holds potential to advance neuroscience, correct brain abnormalities, and rapidly enhance brain performance.

  • Source: http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/104/20141250

2014:  Researchers have long been skeptical about states of “phenomenal consciousness” also referred to as “qualia.”  Phenomenal consciousness is referenced as contents of conscious experience independent of access to the experience via cognitive functions including top-down attention and working memory.  In the past, research has never been able to identify nor induce phenomenal consciousness in humans.

In attempt to induce a state of phenomenal consciousness, researchers utilized decoded neurofeedback.  To accomplish this, researchers targeted visual areas V1 and V2 and induced a neural representation of a specific color with an fMRI.  They then utilized decoded neurofeedback with an fMRI to train other individuals to match the neural pattern activation associated with the specific color.

Results suggested that the neural representation of phenomenal consciousness of the color was learned and maintained in the early visual cortex.  When researchers asked participants what color they perceived – most chose “red” (the color that was being targeted).  This suggests that decoded neurofeedback hold significant potential in the research of consciousness.

  • Source: http://i-perception.perceptionweb.com/fulltext/i05/apcv14s.pdf

2012: In 2012 a report was published documenting a “new neuroscientific approach.”  This approach happened to be decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) technology.  Authors note that neurofeedback technology has increased in popularity during the past decade and is often sought out for the treatment of psychiatric disorders and neurological rehabilitation.

It wasn’t until recently that a new breakthrough in the field of neurofeedback came via decoded neurofeedback.  This method involves using real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging to direct brain activity to meet a “target” state (almost like a blueprint of neural activation).  When a person has successfully activated the proper neural correlates, they get positive reinforcement – which trains their brain via this continuous feedback loop.

Authors point out that decoded neurofeedback holds the potential to test how the interworkings of neural connectivity and activation influence perception, cognition, and behavior.  This publication highlights the potential scientific benefits that could be derived from decoded neurofeedback.  It was noted that decoded neurofeedback may serve as a medical treatment and a novel learning tool.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23196557

2012:  In the past, it was often assumed that the adult brain couldn’t be changed, that it was functionally “fixed” for life.  This assumption that the brain is fixed by adulthood has since been debunked with the concept of neuroplasticity.  In fact, it is known that we can consciously change our own brains based on internal inputs (diet, supplements, sleep quality, etc.) and external inputs (air quality, environment, social group).

That said, it was considered controversial whether the adult early visual cortex was neuroplastic enough to cause visual perceptual learning (VPL).  Skepticism questioning the plasticity of the adult early visual cortex stems from the fact that most visual perceptual learning (VPL) research have demonstrated correlations between behavior and neural activity changes, but not cause-effect relationships.  To get a better understanding of the plasticity of the adult visual cortex, researchers utilized a decoded neurofeedback unit.

They specifically induced neural activity patterns in the early visual cortex (of participants) that corresponded to orientation without any stimulus or awareness of what would be learned.  Results from the study demonstrated that the participants were able to engage in visual perceptual learning (VPL) as a result of the trained neural activity patterns.  This indicates that the adult early visual cortex is highly plastic and that decoded neurofeedback can selectively induce targeted neuroplasticity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3297423/

Benefits of Decoded Neurofeedback

The research involving decoded neurofeedback should be considered groundbreaking.  Expect this technology to yield significant advances in the field of neuroscience and neurotechnology.  It is highly likely that those with neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities will derive benefit from personalized decoded neurofeedback training protocols.

  • Behavioral change: There is evidence that using decoded neurofeedback may help you change your behavior. When certain neural connections and activation is “stuck,” it’s difficult to change our behavior.  When we’re able to consciously change these connections, there’s evidence that our behavior changes as well; this is evidenced by real-time fMRI neurofeedback.
  • Cognitive enhancement: Anyone that’s trying to make a difference in the world and improve should be trying to enhance their cognition. The better your brain performs, the more you can contribute to society, and the quicker advances take place.  Cognitive enhancement could easily be derived from decoded neurofeedback by enhancing activation of regions involved in memory, learning, and information processing.  In other words, you could train yourself to increase your IQ.
  • Consciousness research: Little is currently known about how neural activity and connectivity influences our state of consciousness. Decoded neurofeedback is already being used to research consciousness such as in the aforementioned publication investigating “phenomenal consciousness.”  It is a helpful technology for researching consciousness as well as for deliberately exploring consciousness.
  • Customized neuroplasticity: After various states of consciousness have been pinpointed via research, you may be able to customize your neural activation with self-directed neuroplasticity. Want to become a better dancer, golfer, piano player, reader, etc.?  By pinpointing the specific correlates in the brain associated with various states of consciousness, you can use decoded neurofeedback to enhance existing strengths and capabilities, and learn new skills with sufficient training.
  • Learning (Instantaneously): Perhaps the most impressive potential of decoded neurofeedback is that it has potential to drastically cut learning time of complex tasks. Imagine if you were able to train your brain to “match” the activation of someone else using a similarity algorithm.  While information may not be transferred, just learning where to activate the brain could cut learning time.  In addition, it is possible that information transfer via brain-to-brain communication could be integrated with decoded neurofeedback to facilitate both information transfer with the neural activation; leading to exponential learning abilities.
  • Neural correlates: Neuroscientists continue to make slow progress in terms of pinpointing neural correlates of certain brain functions. With continuous decoded neurofeedback research, we will get a better understanding of tiny regions (the size of millimeters) influence our behavior, perception, and cognition.  Pinpointing specific neural correlates will help scientists understand dysfunction within the brain and how to optimize training to correct it.
  • Neurological conditions: Individuals with neurological conditions such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorders, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia aren’t well understood. With decoded neurofeedback, it is likely that researchers will be able to pinpoint specific neural correlates associated with these conditions and work to correct them.
  • Perception: Most people regard perception as being subjective, and there are nearly infinite possibilities of perceptual experiences stemming from neural activation. Extremely tiny changes in brain activation may differentiate one person’s perceptual experience from that of another.  Neuroscientists may be able to successfully alter the brain activation of a person to deliberately change their perception based on how the individual wants to (subjectively) perceive the world.
  • Robotic control: It has been suggested that decoded neurofeedback could be used to control robots via an integrated system. This may have far-reaching potential for transhumanists and/or for simply controlling non-biologically integrated robots.  The robotic control could be a symbiotic system in that the robot could stimulate the brain to learn new information, while the brain could also direct the robot to perform tasks.
  • Treatment: Those suffering from neurological/psychiatric disorders don’t have many healthy long-term treatments. Many of the available treatments result in unwanted side effects and in time, an individual builds up tolerance.  It is possible that by targeting neural abnormalities associated with certain conditions (e.g. drug addiction), quick long-term relief could be attained without ingestion of an exogenous chemical.  In addition, decoded neurofeedback training could be used synergistically with other interventions to correct faulty neural functioning.

Would you try decoded neurofeedback?

If you would try decoded neurofeedback, what would you want to use it to accomplish?  Understand that as more research is conducted and the advancement of technology continues, the price for this technology will drop, making it more affordable for the masses.  As of now, researchers are still working out the kinks and learning how to devise protocols to benefit individuals with mental illness.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Lucky N Khumalo February 25, 2016, 8:16 pm

    I believe that if DecNef technology succeeds and made accessible to the masses, humanity will literally take hell of a giant leap forward towards its evolutionary journey.

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