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Brains vs. Trauma

Landmark study reports gains in treating kids suffering chronic trauma

Neurofeedback therapy helping youth find calm, self-control

Dr. Eraina Schauss places a cap on the head of Paige Dixon to perform a qEEG (quantitative electroencephalograph), which maps the neural pathways in the human brain. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

A landmark Memphis clinical trial of neurofeedback therapy shows promising results for adolescents struggling to overcome chronic childhood trauma.

In the 2019 trial, scientists measured, recorded and trained the brain waves of nearly three dozen adolescents at Compass Intervention Center in southeast Memphis.

The non-invasive therapy, which has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans, was used to treat developmental trauma, a sort of childhood version of PTSD.

It was the first randomized control trial to examine the use of neurofeedback therapy on adolescents who have suffered significant abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and other adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

“Basically, we found that our treatment group had enormous positive gains, specifically in emotion regulation, self-control, resilience, sleep and decreases in impulsivity, and dissociative experiences,” said Dr. Eraina Schauss, founding director of the BRAIN Center at the University of Memphis. She’s also on the faculty at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Dr. Eraina Schauss is the director and founder of the Brain Center at the University of Memphis. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

“We found enormous improvements in symptom reduction,” Schauss said. “For example, kids who completed the neurofeedback therapy had 11 times greater improvement in self-control than the kids who did not receive the treatment. We also found that emotion regulation doubled for children who received the treatment.”

In other results, the treatment group was five times less likely to have sleep problems, six times less likely to show impulsivity, and less likely to exhibit dissociative behavior.

Encouraged by the results, Schauss and her colleagues began a second clinical trial at Compass last month.

Schauss and others believe the results, while preliminary and limited in size, show promise for children and adolescents who struggle to learn, communicate, behave and cope.

More than half of the adolescents at Compass have become involved with the juvenile justice system. Two-thirds have substance abuse problems.

“For a community struggling with the high cost of poverty, violence, addiction, obesity, and mental and physical illness, the team’s findings could have significant implications with regard to funding Juvenile Justice, Education and Mental Health Treatment services,” said Dr. Steven R. Goodman, vice chancellor for research at UTHSC.

Schauss is part of a team of local researchers that includes Dr. Khyobeni Mozhui of the Department of Preventive Medicine at UTHSC.

They are studying the “Impact of Neurofeedback Therapy on the Health and Behavior of Adolescents.”

UT scientists are looking to see if trauma leaves a mark on a child’s genes — a mark that can be passed down epigenetically from parents to their children.

They also are investigating the impact of environmental neurotoxins such as lead, iron, copper and zinc.

“This represents the first randomized control trial to examine the relationship between genetics, environmental exposures, neuroplasticity following mental health treatment intervention and subsequent epigenetic outcomes,” Goodman said.

The National Institute for Mental Health is encouraging this kind of new research. “Mapping the cognitive, circuit, and genetic aspects of mental disorders will yield new and better targets for treatment,” NIMH said.

That’s what Schauss and her colleagues are trying to do with their neurofeedback study.

Chronic stress and trauma can be especially hard on a young, developing brain.

Prolonged stress and trauma can strengthen neural connections to the brain’s “fight or flight” center and weaken those to the brain’s “self-control” center.

And it can shrink areas of the brain associated with the regulation of emotions, metabolism, memory, and learning.

Children of chronic stress and trauma become more prone to violence, aggression, depression, substance addiction, suicide, illness and disease, not to mention academic failure.

The problem is especially acute in high-poverty urban areas such as Memphis.

Adults in Shelby County are much more likely than those elsewhere to have experienced adverse childhood experiences, according to a 2014 survey by the ACE Awareness Foundation.

“Chronic trauma reorganizes the brain,” Schauss said. “With neurofeedback, we can help the brain regain its balance, teach the brain to self-regulate and become more resilient to trauma.”

The research was funded, in large part, by a 2018 $1 million grant from the Memphis Research Consortium. Last fall, the team received a $100,000 CORNET Award in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Research.

“We need additional research to determine exactly who benefits and to perfect the dosing of the intervention,” said Dr. Steven L. West, chair of the UofM’s Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research. “My hope is that funding will be made available, either from the federal government or the state. More than sufficient evidence has been provided to role out the basic version of the intervention.”


David Waters’ reporting on issues affecting Memphis children is funded, in part, by a grant from the Urban Child Institute. UCI has no prior knowledge of topics Waters chooses nor is it involved in any aspect of the editorial process.

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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