The pharmaceutical industry has done a remarkable job of portraying mental illness as a disorder of brain function as opposed to moral problems such as character flaw or even demon possession. However, the drug treatments currently available leave much to be desired.
The blood-brain barrier makes it difficult to create drugs that can reach the brain at all and there is no way to target specific neural circuits.
A different approach is neurofeedback, also called EEG biofeedback. EEG is short for electroencephalography, which is a technique for measuring electrical signals from the brain. These signals were first noted in 1875 and have been extensively studied over the last few decades.
Computer technology makes it easy to analyze the EEG signal as a frequency spectrum, where various parts of the spectrum are associated with different brain activities: sleep, attention, learning, complex problem solving, creativity, cognitive processing, hyperalertness, etc. Abnormalities of the EEG spectrum are noted in disorders such as epilepsy, attention deficit (ADD or ADHD), depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Neurofeedback therapy is like physical therapy for the brain. The equipment includes one or more electrodes placed on the scalp and a computer “game” controlled by the EEG signal. The therapist sets the program to reward random fluctuations in brain function that meet treatment specifications.
This approach is called “operant conditioning.” It is much like the way we learn physical skills, such as ice skating or riding a bicycle. To learn a new skill, we try a variety of muscle contraction patterns, and when we get it right, we feel rewarded by our success (in the case of ice skating, we feel balanced and see that we're going where we want to go). With practice, we learn how to get it right more and more of the time.
Neurofeedback is actually much simpler than learning a physical skill. There's no need to try to win the computer game; our brains are flexible enough that we can just watch.