New brain wave treatment could ease insomnia

May 7, 2012

Now, a new experimental treatment could point the way to a good night's sleep.

Howard Shelley, 45, could not sleep more than three hours a night.

"I wouldn't sleep that soundly. I would wake up," he said.

Up to 50 percent of Americans like Howard report insomnia on a weekly basis.

Howard participated in the first clinical research study using brain wave optimization -- essentially using your own brain waves to balance brain function to improve sleep.

"It's kind of like pushing the reset button, in that you get back to a balanced level to start with," said Charles Tegeler, MD, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Dr. Tegeler says insomnia can be caused by stress or trauma that throws off the brain's natural rhythms and balance.

Here's how the treatment works: sensors attach to the scalp and connect to a brain-mapping computer that detects brain waves. The brain waves are then broken down into frequencies and evaluated.

Dominant frequencies are then assigned a musical tone and played back to the patient through ear phones.

"It's kind of consonant, kind of dissonant...strangely ethereal," Shelley said.

As the brain listens to the sounds, changes can occur in the neural network.

"It works. After the third session, I got a great night's sleep. After that, little by little, the insomnia kind of went away. I'm sleeping great now," said Shelley.

All thanks to the sounds of his own brain.

Brain wave optimization is available as a biofeedback technique, but formal research studies are just emerging. The treatment has been shown to be safe and painless in early research trials for insomnia. A clinical trial for brainwave optimization in migraine is under way, with plans to do additional studies with insomnia, along with mild cognitive impairment and traumatic brain injury or concussion planned for this year.

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