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Education The Faculty Graduate Schools Graduate School of Behavioural and Social Sciences Research Master
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EEG, neurofeedback training and executive functions

Date:14 April 2022
Author:Karl Zimmerman
Neurofeedback training has been widely studied, but only very little in relation to executive functions.
Neurofeedback training has been widely studied, but only very little in relation to executive functions.

During my bachelor's at the UG, I was introduced to the field of executive functions and neurofeedback. The idea of enabling someone to improve their brain without the use of drugs or other invasive methods really spoke to me. In neurofeedback training (NFT), brain activity is measured while participants are given a particular task. By feeding back this information to them, participants can try to improve the use of their brains. NFT has been widely studied, but only very little in relation to executive functions.

The title of my master's thesis is 'Effects of EEG applied neurofeedback training on frontal-midline theta and executive functions’. I already worked with my supervisor, dr. Stefanie Enriquez Geppert in a project in the bachelor’s programme. In my thesis project, we looked at the effects of an NFT designed to improve cognitive control.

The research

The data for my thesis project came from an experiment conducted in cooperation with researchers at the University of Toulouse. The study was an extended replication of a study I had worked on as a voluntary student assistant. I had helped with developing the behavioural tasks. Participants completed eight NFT sessions. We did measurements before and after the training. We compared the measurements of a test before the training with those of a test after the training and looked at how the executive functions of the participants changed, whether they improved or perhaps worsened after the NFT was applied. We measured inhibition, task switching and memory updating.

The results

From the measurements we could see that the participants were better able to modulate their brain state after the training sessions. Unfortunately, we did not get enough statistical information to say anything about the behavioural part of the executive functions. Although it was a secondary finding and not exactly all we were looking for, it was nice to see something happening in the brain state called frontal midline theta.

Look again

At first, I was quite disappointed with the results. I put so much work into the project and it felt like we found nothing. I suppose that is what many students experience when doing research. But when I looked again, I saw that we had not found 'nothing'. Maybe what we were looking for in the tests before and after the training was not there, or at least we could not see it in our limited sample. But what we did see was that a certain brain state, called frontal midline theta, was being trained in the participants. This brain activity is known to be directly linked to executive functions. Although this was a very specific, small detail, it could be a step for future research, something we might be able to use in this kind of training. So I found a small thing, but it could spark something bigger.

Once we better understand this, I can see this result leading to something that will be applied in practice, for example in schizophrenia. Many schizophrenic patients suffer from executive dysfunction. What if they could get this training from their General Practitioner, or even do it at home? Or if I think about helping people who are in a mental loop, like in a psychosis: What if they could learn to get a grip on what is happening by literally training their brain? I am very curious to see where 'my spark' might lead to, what it will bring about in the future. 

What I learned

In this research, I learned a lot about EEG, such as how to apply it to peoples' heads, the different signals it gives, and what the signals reveal. It was nice to see so many different aspects of such a large study and even get in touch with the research group from Toulouse, France. They were training pilots there, for example.

When I started, I didn't realise how extensive my research would be. I did a bachelor thesis, and as a research assistant I did smaller parts of other research projects. For my master's thesis project, I had to think from beginning to end: how do I structure it, what is my exact research question. So many details that I had to get into, like coding in R. I had to master that too for my project. As a result I have a better understanding of what goes into a research project.

Clinical psychologist

I don't see myself doing any research in the near future. I am currently training to become a clinical psychologist. And after that, I want to do the applied work. But, I also keep that door to research open. I don't know in what way research will be a part of my career. I think it is great that we can basically train people to use their brains better. Science certainly needs to look further into this, because it could be groundbreaking for individuals, but also for society as a whole. I will certainly follow the developments in the field of executive functions.

About the author

Karl Zimmerman
Karl Zimmerman

Karl Zimmerman (28, Germany) finished his Bachelor in Psychology at the University of Groningen. He worked as a research assistant at the university of Oslo in a project that involved neurofeedback. In the research master he chose to do the neuropsychology specialization in the theme Deficits, distress and disorder (now Mental Health: Perspectives from Neuro- and Clinical psychology). Half way through the programme he realised that he wanted to pursue his career in clinical psychology. He had taken both courses, so he was able to switch specialization.