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Scranton nonprofit brings neurofeedback to NEPA, results ‘life-changing’

Anthony Salva plays a racing game during a neurofeedback session. The car's performance is based on his brain activity.
Haley O'Brien
/
WVIA News
Anthony Salva plays a racing game during a neurofeedback session. The car's performance is based on his brain activity.

Anthony Salva experienced migraines multiple times a week for nearly ten years.

“I couldn't take Tylenol, it didn’t do anything for me,” he said. “I got on migraine medication. The medication made me groggy and tired. It started impacting my home life.”

“I would get that field of vision issue, so I couldn’t see,” he added. “But that hasn’t happened in a very long time.”

Salva hasn’t suffered as much since he started neurofeedback therapy last year.

“This has been life-changing,” he said.

Studies show the practice can improve cognitive function and alleviate mental health symptoms or psychiatric disorders.

IMBS

Integrative Mind and Body Services (IMBS) is a new nonprofit based in Scranton. The founder, Alyse Kerr is president and CEO of Integrative Counseling Services (ICS) which has locations in Lackawanna, Susquehanna and Dauphin Counties.

“For me, it was the availability of services not being any closer than three, three and a half hours away,” Kerr said. “It's a very interesting and exciting service, but it's so new to this area — not new to the field, but new to this area — that nobody really knows what it is or how it can work.”

She established the nonprofit because most insurance companies don’t cover these services. IMBS, currently pending 501c3 approval, will provide services at no cost or a discount with the help of grants and donations.

The center, located at 220 Penn Avenue, will provide neurofeedback as well as biofeedback, which monitors body metrics like heart rate, muscle tension and external temperature to help a person regulate their bodily functions.

Amy Bernstiel is a neurofeedback technician who worked in the Philadelphia area for 17 years before moving to Northeast Pennsylvania to help launch IMBS.

She discovered the practice in the late 90’s when she, too, suffered from migraines.

“The effects are permanent,” she said. “My brain has sort of relearned different pathways and I don’t have migraine headaches anymore, I’ll have one or two a year maybe. So I’m medication free.”

Neurofeedback: how it works

Sensors are placed on the client’s head to detect brain activity. The subject sits in front of a computer monitor and watches a racing game, for example. The system has several options for visual and auditory stimuli.

The technician looks at another computer monitor that shows what’s happening inside the brain in real time.

The game is controlled by the subject’s level of focus.

“He doesn’t have to steer it left or right, the computer does that. But he gives it the power to go,” Bernstiel said. “The more relaxed and focused he is, the faster the car will go.”

The game uses positive reinforcement to train the brain.

“The pace the car moves, the rumble of the engine, those are tied to the reward.” Bernstiel said. “So I’m asking his brain to make certain frequencies, and when it does that the car engine will be loud and the car will go … If his brain, for example, makes frequencies I’m asking it to not make, so inhibits, then it will get foggy, he won’t be able to see where he’s going and the car will slow down.”

“This is like a giant mirror for my brain,” Salva explained. “My brain is taking in all of the information and when it’s doing what it’s supposed to do - when the screen’s clear and the picture is moving and the sounds are good and everything else - that positive feedback, my brain wants to do more of that just naturally.”

Each session lasts about an hour. Salva says if he starts a session with a headache, it usually goes away with the help of neurofeedback.

The science behind it

So how does this video game reduce headaches? It regulates brain waves.

“We call migraines instabilities… My brain doesn’t function optimally,” Salva said. “When I do the [neurofeedback] training, it helps my brain to recognize what it’s doing too much of and too little of.”

The technician monitors frequencies on the screen and identifies their brain activity as a result.

“You might see something like muscle tension,” technician Amanda Crowley said.

“Then that’s when you would ask somebody, ‘Are you feeling anxious?’ or ‘Are you feeling stressed?’” she added. “Same thing with drifting. If you’re not as focused, it’s something that would come up on the screen.”

Technicians can identify that theta brainwaves, for example, exhibit drifting, or daydreaming.

They can map out ideal brain wave states and look at data to show the change in a person’s performance over time.

Who it’s for

Neurofeedback can be used as an alternative or in addition to other mental health treatment. It is noninvasive and can come with short-term side effects like fatigue and headaches. Each person's eligibility for services will be determined with an intake session.

The practice is known to reduce stress, improve sleep, and benefit people with anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, and more.

“My anxiety decreased and it’s not to the extent it once was,” Crowley said of her own experience. “It definitely helps because it trains your brain and helps you respond differently.”

Attending sessions twice a week is recommended for the most success. The treatment is customizable, from the activity on the screen to the amount of sessions you do. The brain develops new neural pathways in as little as ten sessions.

“We do expect to see some results of some variety really pretty quickly,” Bernstiel said. “Someone who might be a slower responder might take six sessions, eight sessions, ten sessions.”

She says it’s exercise for your brain and the more you do it, the better the brain gets. Even after initial treatment produces a fix, some people come back for a session or two just to sharpen their performance. In other cases, a person without mental health symptoms can use it to improve their brain health.

“Even if you just want a little bit more focus or what we call brain brightening,” Salva said. “Surgeons or doctors or people in sports, professional athletes, they’re doing well, they want to do better naturally without putting anything into their body, this is a great way to do it.”

Salva is a clinical supervisor at Integrative Counseling Services, and currently working towards becoming certified as a neurofeedback technician. He looks forward to introducing it to his clients as an alternative therapy.

“I think outpatient therapy is great, but it’s not for everybody. Not everybody wants to share their traumas and process it out loud,” Salva said. “This gives someone the ability to regulate their emotions, lessen their anxiety, sleep better, work through their depression all naturally and internally. The brain wants to function well and anxiety and lack of sleep and depression and trauma and emotional intensity prevents that sometimes.”

Haley joined the WVIA news team in 2023 as a reporter and host. She grew up in Scranton and studied Broadcast Journalism at Marywood University. Haley has experience reporting in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. She enjoys reporting on Pennsylvania history and culture, and video storytelling.

You can email Haley at haleyobrien@wvia.org