Wellness·4 min read

What Is Neurofeedback Therapy? And Does It Actually Work?

A doctor applying electrodes to a woman's head
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
April 19, 2023

From the outside, neurofeedback therapy might look like something out of a sci-fi movie…thanks to the electrodes attached to your head. It’s still somewhat controversial in the mental health world, but it’s slowly becoming more mainstream. But does it work? We called up Suruchi Chandra, a Yale- and Harvard-trained psychiatrist with a certification in neurofeedback therapy, to find out how it works and if it’s right for you.

What is neurofeedback therapy?

Neurofeedback therapy is based on the idea that changing the way the brain behaves may treat mental health concerns. “We want to encourage a certain type of brain activity” that indicates a healthy state of mind, Chandra says. Neurofeedback practitioners do that by tracking and training the brain out of behaviors that are typical of mental health or neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Here’s what a typical session might look like, according to Chandra:

  1. You’ll sit in a comfortable chair with electrodes on your head. (Which, Chandra notes, don’t actually stimulate your brain. They just monitor brain activity.) 

  2. The therapist will have you do an activity that’s programmed to interact with your brain activity. It might mean playing a video game, watching a video, listening to music, or holding a stuffed animal. 

  3. When the electrodes pick up that your brain does something it should — like producing a certain optimal brain wave — it gets rewarded. “The video may become bigger, brighter, faster. If they're listening to music, the music may become faster, louder, more pleasant in some way … [If] they're holding a stuffed animal, then it will purr or give them some type of pleasant reinforcement,” says Chandra. When the electrodes detect unhealthy patterns in the brain, the activity may go away or become less pleasant. If it’s a video, for example, it may shrink or become harder to see. 

  4. You and your practitioner will continue this process over many sessions, with the goal of training your brain to produce optimal brain waves — aka not the ones typical of a mental health disorder — in regular life.

Take someone with ADHD, for example. Their brain typically doesn't produce enough of a brain wave called SMR (sensorimotor rhythm), Chandra explains. SMR typically only occurs when someone is calm and/or still, which is something a person with ADHD might struggle with. So during a neurofeedback session, the brain is rewarded when it produces more SMR. 

“It's not that different from when you train an animal, right? You reward the animal to do what we think is healthier and optimal. And in this case, the technology is rewarding the brain,” she says. If it all goes according to plan, the brain learns to produce more SMR, which ideally helps minimize ADHD symptoms outside of therapy. 

Is neurofeedback therapy effective?

Anecdotally, some people with PTSD and other mental health conditions have said that neurofeedback therapy helped improve their mental health. Some small studies have also shown that neurofeedback therapy may help with people suffering from ADHD, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder.

But neurofeedback therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment. There are many different kinds that work in different ways, says Chandra. Think of it like medications, she says: One medication might work for one person and not so much for someone else. 

Plus, many experts agree that there needs to be more research on this type of treatment. Neurofeedback is a newer and developing field in therapy (it was first studied in the 1960s). And it’s not yet widely accepted in the mental health treatment world. But Chandra emphasizes that neurofeedback was developed in academic centers and is “not something that's just out there without any type of evidence.” 

I’m intrigued. Should I try neurofeedback therapy?

It depends on your specific concerns and experience with other forms of therapy, Chandra says. Example: If you've been in talk therapy for years and haven’t seen improvement in your mental health, neurofeedback might be helpful. 

Chandra notes that this type of therapy takes time — it’s not something that’ll produce results in one try. She recommends starting with 30 to 40 sessions. Keep in mind that while some insurance companies may cover neurofeedback, you’ll want to call up your particular insurance provider to find out. Without insurance, a session can reportedly cost between $100 to $300. 


Neurofeedback therapy is an evolving treatment — and more research will help experts understand how effective it is long-term. The good news: There’s some evidence that it could be a helpful option for some people dealing with mental health concerns.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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