LENS neurofeedback provider Melissa Wessel drives from Windsor in Sonoma County to Humboldt County every other week to see her local clients, who include people recovering from brain damage, stroke, and a variety of neurological conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, autism, anxiety, and depression.
LENS, which stands for "Low Energy Neurofeedback System," uses a low-powered electromagnetic field to carry feedback from specific sites on a client’s brain. This feedback, which is slightly different than the signal sent from the brain, "gently nudges" an injured or disordered brain toward better function.
The history of LENS began about 40 years ago when the public first became aware of biofeedback as a treatment for a variety of conditions including stress, depression, anxiety, and pain.
"If you remember, with biofeedback you would be hooked up with something on your hand or arm, and you would work at changing your body temperature or your heart rate, and you would learn how to control your body and your biological functions," Wessel recalled.
With neurofeedback, which was originally called "brain entrainment," the client was connected to a computer that read his or her brainwaves. The client then played a game, such as driving a virtual car down a road on the computer screen, using only feedback from his or her brain.
The brain produces several kinds of waves, including alpha waves, beta waves, and delta waves. In different illnesses or conditions, one or more categories of waves originating from various parts of the brain can be hyperactive or hypersuppressed, causing the client’s symptoms.
The computer game was designed so that the desired result, such as the car going down the road, would occur when the client’s brain waves were optimal. "The game wouldn’t work unless you got control over your brain waves... It would let you know when you were doing it right," Wessel explained.
"That was the only way you could know. Most of us don’t know what our brain waves are doing," she said.
The LENS system, on the other hand, which was developed by Dr. Len Ochs of Sebastopol, uses what Wessel called "brain disentrainment." Rather than trying to train your brain waves into more functional patterns, LENS works to get the brain out of "stuck patterns."
"The theory is that the brain knows best what it should be doing, and we give it a little assistance," Wessel said. "Once it’s flexible, and not locked in, then people tend to function better. We are trying to get rid of blocking patterns, whether it’s ADD, stroke, PTSD, brain trauma, any of those things - people start to function better."
Before treating clients, Wessel asks them to complete a detailed questionnaire describing their history, symptoms, and problems. Sessions begin with a detailed discussion of their health and feelings, and what changes may have occurred since earlier sessions.
Next she will create a "brain map" by placing wires on different sites of their scalp. The computer produces a picture of the waves at each site, similar to an electroencephalogram (EEG), as well as a bar chart showing wave amplitude (height) and deviation from normal wave amplitude at each site.
Normal brain waves are "flexible and ideal," Wessel said. "You have some peaks, some lows, it’s not extreme either way." Hypersuppressed waves are small and rigid; hyperactive waves show big spikes.
On the bar graph, hypersuppressed waves show little or no deviation from normal and hyperactive waves show large amounts of deviation.
"It’s all interconnected electrically, all the neurons are connected to the brain," Wessel continued. "We think... when you go from very nice flexible waves where the information is just roaring along, and then it gets to these hypersuppressed waves that the information either gets lost or slows down. And it’s similar with the hyperactive ... we think it’s noisy, inconsistent, and some things might be dropped. So as the brain gets more flexible, people function better."
But Wessel cautions that she does not diagnose a condition, nor do the treatments vary for different diagnoses.
After the brain is mapped, Wessel decides which brain sites need treatment first, and how much treatment to give a patient in one session. Some clients, and some conditions, are more sensitive to the treatment than others.
"My job - a lot of my job - is to decide how much to do at once and how sensitive people are to the work," Wessel said. Some clients benefit from as much as 60 seconds of feedback on several sites while others do best with very small treatments, lasting as little as 1/100th of a second.
"What happens is, [the LENS device] determines the dominant frequency that’s coming out of the electrodes, and it feeds the same frequency back, only with a tiny little offset," Wessel said. "It’s like a radio and an antenna. As long as the radio’s dialed in to the signal, you get a really clear signal. If you turn it a little bit too far, you get that staticky sound but you can still hear the music. That’s what we’re giving the brain, that staticky noise, but it can still understand it because it’s on the same frequency... "
"We still don’t understand the mechanism for the brain getting this tiny little signal, but it seems like it gives it a tiny little nudge. The brain listens to it because it’s the same frequency. From there as we keep working on the whole brain, the brain seems to get more flexible. And that’s really all it is.
"What people experience initially is that they’ll feel a transformation with their brain maybe only three or four hours or a day or two after treatment. And then eventually it will wear off because the brain will try to go back to the old patterns. As we continue, usually the benefits last longer and longer.
"For the people I see once a week, as soon as they last a whole week we go to every other week. As soon as it lasts for two weeks we go to once a month, we do that a couple of times and then we’re done. They do not typically need to come back and see me."
Some people, especially those suffering with auto-immune disorders like Lyme disease or chronic fatigue syndrome, are particularly sensitive to the treatment and may feel tired, wired, or irritable after a treatment, but otherwise there are no known side effects.
Results can be subtle or dramatic. Generally speaking, the more severe the problem, the more areas of the brain affected, the more effective the treatment seems to be.
Among her successes is a woman who had brain trauma from a bus accident 20 years before coming to LENS treatment and who required full-time care. After treatment she was able to live on her own with only a helper checking on her twice a week, and was able to do her own shopping and ride a bus to classes.
Another brain trauma victim found himself casually reading a newspaper after only two sessions, when for the five previous years he had been unable to concentrate or remember anything when he tried to read.
Wessel came to LENS from her own experience. She and her former husband owned several adolescent treatment centers. Most of their residents came from abusive households. Additionally, Wessel had two children of her own and they lived on a small ranch with horses.
After 15 years they phased out their business and Wessel went into real estate, and got divorced. Following all these changes she suddenly developed chronic fatigue syndrome.
"I was in bed for at least the first two years almost non-stop," she said. "It went from me working, working, having a company, ranch, horses, and kids to being in bed all the time. There was no transition. I just went down.
"So for the first couple of years I was looking for people to help me out, trying all kinds of therapies... Somebody I knew well, a psychologist, who had been working with us with the kids, recommended me seeing Len Ochs...
"I started seeing him and from the very first treatment I started getting better. [Ochs] asked me if I would be interested in being a provider because of my background in psychology, therapy, and teaching. I said yes... so I have been doing this now for about eight years."
Wessel had been seeing some patients from Humboldt County at her Windsor office. As the word spread and more clients started coming from a long distance, she decided to spend a couple of days every two weeks meeting them closer to their homes.
Typically she arrives in Garberville on Thursday, then sees clients in Fortuna on Friday morning. She returns to Garberville on Friday afternoon and finishes the day in Shelter Cove. Her first Humboldt patient was a Shelter Cove resident suffering from brain trauma following a car accident.
In Garberville Wessel sees clients at the Heart of the Redwoods Community Hospice building, where she rents a meeting room. "Hospice has been very gracious in offering me this space," she said, although her practice is not affiliated with Hospice.
For those who want more information about LENS, Wessel recommends two books by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., "The Healing Power of Neurofeedback" and "The Neurofeedback Solution." Information is also readily available on the internet, including YouTube videos.
Wessel is taking new clients, and anyone who is interested can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (707) 481-7855.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
Melissa Wessel and Millie the service dog see LENS Neurofeedback clients recovering from strokes, brain trauma, and other neurological problems in Garberville every two weeks. According to Wessel, people respond to dogs with different parts of their brains than they do to adult humans. With her friendly manner and big brown eyes, Millie helps the healing process.