I first learned of Margaret Ayers in 1983 when practicing as a psychologist in Rosemead, CA. My former supervisor, Dr. Gary Dean, casually told me one day that over half of the teenagers admitted into the Alhambra Psychiatric Hospital, the facility where we saw most of our patients, had learning disability. He added he knew of a woman who permanently corrected this disability as well as ADHD through the use of EEG neurofeedback. I was completely skeptical even though I respected this man.
Several months later, in 1984, I was referred a case of Rita (not her real name), a 55-year-old woman who was suffering from panic attacks, daily headaches, depression, vertigo, and “enormous fear”. The majority of these symptoms began the day following her adult daughter leaving after a week long visit. Rita had a stroke seven years prior that she reported changed her personality. She had lost her speech from the stroke, had good recovery, but was left with mild verbal apraxia. This is the inability to produce words on command. It looks to others like one has problems with word finding. In my office she would periodically not be able to say a common word, like “television”, then have an immediate hot flash and anxiety, resulting in her fanning herself. This was my first stroke patient and I knew I could not help with her apraxia. Since it was very bothersome to her, I referred her to Margaret Ayers. She went weekly for many months, but I saw improvement within weeks. She no longer had difficulty producing words on command. Over time, her energy dramatically improved and her anxiety completely abated. She spoke up more and began to feel the way she did before the stroke. A part of me wanted to attribute her progress to good psychotherapy, and I’m sure that this helped. However, the rapid recovery from her seven years of verbal apraxia seemed remarkable. The hot flashes and fanning completely stopped. She seemed more alive than ever. After one year of combining psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, and EEG neurofeedback, this woman made a full recovery.
During this same period, Devan (not his real name), a 23-year-old man, was being repeatedly hospitalized on 5150 holds at the Alhambra Psychiatric Hospital. A 5150 is an involuntary 72 hour hospitalization for observation and treatment. It’s reserved for psychiatric emergencies for those dangerous to others, dangerous to oneself, or gravely disabled (unable to care for oneself). By the time I referred him to Margaret Ayers, he had eight admissions in six years, six of these admissions being involuntary. He had no evidence of behavior problems in childhood, nor in his early to middle teenage years. At age 17 he was hang gliding along the cliffs of Palos Verdes and crashed into the rocks without a helmet. Despite a normal CAT scan, his family observed that Devan’s behavior had become increasingly erratic following the head injury. Poor impulse control, extreme poor judgment, bizarre behavior, mood swings, provoking behavior, short temper, episodic violent behavior, and lack of insight defined this young adult. Devan was a high risk case and his prognosis was poor. He would go days without food or sleep. He would do drugs when he could, mostly marijuana and cocaine. He once traded off a ski mobile for one line of cocaine. He hit a child while riding a bicycle. He hitchhiked to Big Bear without any money and got into a fight outside of a bar. He once pulled a knife on his mother. Mostly filled with grandiosity, he would only briefly lapse into moments of awareness of his self-destructive and dangerous behaviors and show concern. He had been given many different diagnoses, including schizophrenia, manic-depression, and antisocial personality, but none really fit. He rarely stayed in a hospital more than a week at a time, leaving AMA (against medical advice). He refused to take any medications. His family hired an attorney to seek conservatorship to force him into treatment, but the judge refused to grant it. His parents were terrified he would eventually be killed by accident or accidentally kill an innocent person. I had exactly the same fear and it truly seemed inevitable. Devan’s final act of dangerousness was to ride a moped with faulty breaks at high speed in a residential neighborhood and crash into the driver’s side of a station wagon of a mother and two young children. Missing killing the mother by a mere two feet, he was left with a deep gash in his right leg, requiring months of medical care. At this point I advised the family to completely abandon traditional psychiatric care and made the referral. The mother personally drove Devan to Margaret Ayers’ office twice weekly for many months. To my genuine amazement, what a team of mental health professionals could not do, Margaret’s EEG machine did do. Devan began showing improvement for the first time. His aggressive outbursts stopped completely. He stopped using drugs and ended his erratic behavior. He even started having insight. A two-year follow-up showed him working full-time, living at home peaceably, having a girlfriend, and no further psychiatric admissions. His parents for years would periodically call to thank me for saving their son. They became a strong advocate for Margaret’s work and subsequently referred many others to her.
My third case began as couples counseling. It was 1985 and a couple in their late 30’s was complaining of having “nothing in common anymore”. They argued for most of the early visits and we made no progress. I decided to see them separately and discovered the husband, Ralph (not his real name), had a major car accident at age 18, requiring three weeks hospitalization. While very bright, Ralph’s thinking was rigid. He held many erroneous beliefs about women, such as, when a woman is nice to a man that it always means she wants something from him. He was quick to misinterpret his wife’s negative emotional expression as a criticism of him. He never felt relaxed and was quick to become internally angry. He had two days of depression every week. One year of cognitive behavior therapy produced limited results. Assuming his previous head injury was interfering with progress, I referred him to Margaret Ayers. She found damage on his right hemisphere. Again, to my amazement, over the next six months, I saw a steady but significant change. He began coming up with these “insights” that were changing his life, such as realizing he has all or nothing thinking. Without reminding him, these insights happened to be much of what I had told him the first year of therapy. It was as if all the work we did was stored somewhere in the brain, but it wasn’t accessible to him. Adding the EEG component made it available. He mellowed out. He felt relaxed for the first time in his life. He was no longer easily triggered to anger. He softened his beliefs about women. He no longer had any days where he felt depressed. As a couple, they stopped arguing almost entirely.
These 3 early cases convinced me that neurofeedback offered substantial value to mental health. In fact, in many situations, it could do what clinicians could not. I referred clients to Margaret Ayers for the next 17 years and in 2001 bought my first neurofeedback system, Neuropathways, the one Margaret Ayers had a patent on. Since then, I have been trained in several additional systems and never regretted my decision to help advance this field. Contrary to popular opinion, neurofeedback is not “experimental”. It has been researched since the 1960’s and is finally beginning to achieve its proper due.