Lifting Mental Muscle: Brain-Training for Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health

This article from the Wall Street Journal goes into a new treatment for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and trauma. The new treatment, called neurofeedback, adopts the philosophy of weight-lifting to strengthen the areas of the brain associated with mental illness, with assistance from fMRI technology. The story covers the work of Dr. Kymberly Young, a postdoctoral associate at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. I thought that the article did a quality job of discussing what neurofeedback is, and the technology that helps make it possible. However, I had some other questions about the article:

  1. Do you think it would have been beneficial to have included another anecdote about biofeedback that was not as satisfactory as Mr. Williams? The study includes at least 20% of people who did not improve their depression symptoms. Would it have been helpful to hear from them?
  2. Do you think there could have been a more effective way to end this story? The story seems to die out at the end, and the final words of the story include more knowledge of neurofeedback, and less of a conclusion to why neurofeedback could be important. Do you agree, or disagree?
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9 Responses to “Lifting Mental Muscle: Brain-Training for Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health”

  1. Garrett:
    I found this article to be interesting, since it highlights a treatment for psychological disorders that does not require medication or face-to-face therapy. Neurofeedback, which uses a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to monitor brain activity and form a diagnosis, could be a game-changer for those suffering from depression. Further research could also reveal this treatment to be beneficial for those with phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and more, which all affect a wide range of people, both young and old. While the topic of the article is intriguing and it is written fairly well, the story could have reported the findings differently.
    In response to your first question, I do think that another anecdote would allow the story to better reflect the true findings related to this treatment, but I do not think it is totally necessary to include. It is good that the author built-in the reality that the treatment does not work for all people with depression, but this is not meant to be the main point of the story. While hearing from those who did not find the treatment to work would add an interesting twist, it would possibly be misleading to the main argument, which is that this treatment is helpful.
    From past journalism experience, I always understood news stories as following an inverted pyramid style. According to this style, a news story should sort of die out at the end, since the most important information is reported first, and supplemental material follows. I agree with your second point, though, that the journalist could have ended the story better with a more straight-forward conclusion. Introducing complementary research seems like an okay way to end the story, but the research used to conclude this story is incredibly weak, since it had no control group and only included seven participants. Instead, the author could have left readers with a strong take-away argument.

  2. While this treatment seems extremely promising, as it has shown proven efficacy for many patients living with anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions, however, I do believe that it would have been beneficial to hear from those for whom this treatment did not alleviate their compromised mental state. 20% is a significant portion of a population group. However, the article does not seem to present this statistic as a significant figure. Because the article discusses a medical intervention, efficacy figures are particularly important. 1/5 of patients did not see improvements; therefore I find it important that this reporter seek further information from those individuals. It would have been interesting to hear a bit of background information on those for whom this treatment did not work, because perhaps their specific stories could have commonalities, and may be able to explain, to a degree, why this treatment did not work. For example, it would have been interesting to see if those who found the treatment ineffective were diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses. These types of details are enriching to a story and can spark further discussion regarding a new and promising treatment.

  3. I found this article very interesting, having never heard of this form of treatment before. I did feel that neurofeedback somewhat discounts the validity of treatments that focus on the emotional side of depression. It somewhat mockingly noted that patients would no longer have to “talk about their mom,” and while I do agree that sometimes therapy can dwell on emotional details that may not actually be especially pertinent, I disliked the tone taken when discussing them in the article.

    In regards to your question, I definitely think the author should have included an account of a patient not helped by neurofeedback. In keeping away from incorporating false bias, though, I think it is still important to have the majority of stories shared touch on the positive, as the treatment does seem to be effective.

    Finally, I think a more effective way to end the article would have been a discussion of the future of this treatment. Because it is relatively new, I am curious about what scientists see as the next steps and new, up-coming developments.

  4. I have to agree with you that the article ended rather abruptly. I don’t think it matters what kind of writing someone is doing; they should have a way to end the writing smoothly.

    I also agree about having the other side of the story as well. Even though the author is more talking about the positives of the neurofeedback, she is still reporting neurofeedback as it is with all the facts. It can also help people to decide if spending that much money on the treatment would be worth it, especially if the more traditional treatments already seem to work for them.

    This actually brings me to my next point. I noticed that the author put in the following quote: “there’s no need to take medication and no need to talk about your mother to a stranger.” I think this quote sort of talks down to the people who rely on these methods of dealing with their depression. Later on in the article, she goes on with a statistic showing how there are still people who the neurofeedback treatment did not help, which suggests that they would still need to use the traditional medication or therapy to help with their illness. I think maybe the author was being a little insensitive towards people in this circumstance, which is always something journalists should probably consider when writing an article (especially with a touchy subject like mental illness).

    Otherwise, this article was interesting! The process kind of reminds me of the memory erasing procedure in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind except not nearly as extreme.

  5. I agree with all of the comments made above about the article. The article was very interesting and promising since depression is such a prominent issue not only in the world, but especially on college campuses like U of M. In response to your first question, I definitely wanted to hear about someone’s story where this treatment did not help because personally I am very skeptical of this method for treating depression. From just briefly reading this article, it seems as though a lot of positive results were from patients who knew that they were being tested for a possible cure for depression. In the active group, their scores rose 20% however in the control group their scores only rose 2%. Therefore, it would be very naive for me as a reader to think that this test isn’t just a psychological trick of the brain for people to think they are truly curing themselves of depression. Going back to your question, I would have wanted there to be an anecdote from someone who did not respond as greatly to the treatment. However, with new scientific articles, it seems as though most of the writers would rather show the positives of the findings rather than the skepticism involved in it. As a journalist, it seems tempting to show the “wow” factor of a new cure or scientific break through. Most likely however there are going to be glitches within a study that has first been released to the public.

  6. I think that you raise some very interesting questions about the article. I definitely agree that there is merit to hearing from one the participants who was not helped by the neurofeedback treatment. The author of the article states that the results from the tests are modest, and speaking to someone whose treatment was not successful would have highlighted this. It was useful to hear from someone who responded to neurofeedback as it gave me a better understanding of how it works. I think that it would be interesting to hear about the treatment from the perspective of someone who was not affected positively by it. I am interested to hear what their thoughts were and how their experiences differed.
    I agree that the ending to the article was not very effective. I liked that it touched on how the participants’’ symptoms improved after the trial, but I would have liked to learn more about the larger implications of neurofeedback. I am interested in what neurofeedback’s potential is. I am not close affected by depression, so I feel like adding more of this information could make me more invested in the story and the treatment it describes. Could it be used to treat other illnesses as well? Would it be effective on a large scale? I think that discussing these aspects would have been a more impactful way to end the story.

  7. I thought this was a very interesting article! There have been huge strides in treating depression lately, and this is yet another unique approach. In response to your first question, I’m not sure how useful an anecdote from a “failed” patient would be. I’m not quite sure what feedback they would be able to give, other than the study simply didn’t work. However, I suppose there could be some useful information from it. In response to the second question, I would agree with you that the ending could be much better. There isn’t a final conclusion to the story, rather it just sort of ends. However, in this day and age with online articles, it honestly isn’t too surprising. Most readers (myself included) skim an article quickly for pertinent information, then move on to something else. I don’t think I would have actually noticed the lackluster ending unless you mentioned it.

  8. Pretty cool stuff! Viable treatments have been an issue for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses for a while now as their prevalences continue to increase. Meanwhile, there are stigmas placed on current treatments. People that take antidepressants or have psychiatrists are often labeled as crazy. These types of treatments also don’t allow patients to feel like they are in control of their condition. Here we have a new self-driven treatment, with which patients can see how their thoughts can change brain activity in areas of concern. With this, patients can begin to develop a sense of control over their condition.

    As is, the article is exciting, informative, and objective. However, it could be better! Hearing a first person perspective from someone who’s neurofeedback experience was unsuccessful could have made this a more well-rounded piece. Why has this technique only shown positive results for a fraction of participants? Are the low success rates due to an inherent limit of neurofeedback or can they be improved? These are questions that have yet to be answered, and could be the make-or-break point for neurofeedback. Perhaps this topic was omitted because there was nothing positive to report on.

  9. I am in agreement with most of the previous comments in the sense that this is an exciting article about a possible new treatment for problems that face a large portion of society. In regards to the first question, the article does seem to have an unfair take on the process without the anecdotal story from those who did not feel the process worked. However, it may be due to a small sample size, as the study cites the unfathomable cost of this treatment plan, or the lack of people willing to share their experiences. I also wonder if the study had to be careful with the amount of information shared because the findings have not been published yet.

    Regarding the second question, I am also in agreement with some others that journalists often have less exciting endings to their stories due to the likelihood of their editors to cut first from the bottom of the piece and the possibility that many readers will not finish the story. With that in mind, the editors could have cut out some of the end of the story to decrease length. Nevertheless, I do recognize that the ending could have been more hopeful for the future of what is to come.

    My concerns with this piece are about the material in the article itself. Firstly, the price was mentioned as being very high, thus is this simply another successful medical procedure that many of those in need cannot afford? Off of that, are there ways we can decrease the price and make this more accessible? Just some food for thought.

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