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Riding the Brain Train

Timothy Royer, founder of Neurocore.

Lead Technician Emily Quinn connects Deborah Johnson Wood to the computer for biofeedback

Lead Technician Emily Quinn connects Deborah Johnson Wood to the computer for biofeedback

Lead Technician Emily Quinn connects Deborah Johnson Wood to the computer for biofeedback

For many parents who were frantic because their ADHD child was clinging to life in the intensive care unit of Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, Dr. Tim Royer's pediatric psychology team was the last stop on an incredibly long and bumpy train ride for help.

What Dr. Royer and his Neurocore team would discover in case after case was shocking: children were overly medicated for their attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other related issues, such as insomnia, sending their overwhelmed bodies into heart failure or kidney failure -- and 60 percent of them didn't even have ADHD.

Many of these families had seen several doctors over many years, had tried multiple medications, and had dealt with their child's isolation, mood swings, inability to focus, and the anxiety of daily mental and emotional "crashes" when the medications wore off. They had followed the medical advice in good faith, believing, hoping, and praying that they were on the right path. But what they didn't know was that there was one crucial step missing. No one had actually looked at their child's brain.

"In any other form of medicine, they check your body," says Royer, Psy.D. "But when we asked if anyone had looked at their child's brain, they all said no. I find that very disturbing.

"We'd do the (neurofeedback) testing and discover that it was like treating somebody for diabetes and they actually had MS," Royer said. "Most had learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders. But nobody was looking at the brain for a brain-based diagnosis."

When the brain's electrical activity is balanced across right-brain, left-brain, and center-brain functions, you function at your peak. With brain training over time, you can learn how to maintain that performance level even in stressful situations, without medication.   

So Royer decided to change behavioral science. He left DeVos Children's in 2001 and founded Neurocore, a Grand Rapids company that uses the latest brain science and technology to collect brain activity data and create customized neurofeedback training to help people find their focus, sleep better, and manage stress.

The results can include weaning ADHD patients off their medications, because as the brain gets stronger, the need for medications aimed at behavioral and psychological symptoms is often reduced or eliminated. Both juvenile and adult clients have reported relief from anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. And athletes and businesspeople have increased their focus levels and achieved what Neurocore dubs peak performance.

Training the brain. Can it be that simple?

Emily Quinn, one of Neurocore's lead technicians, has the hookups, literally. She hooked me up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that measured the electrical activity in my brain's central core and right and left hemispheres. She also connected a heart rate monitor and a belt that monitored my abdominal breathing. A computer screen displayed the neurofeedback: the number of breaths I took, my heart rate, and my brain's electrical activity levels.

Seventy percent of our brain’s energy comes from oxygen, so the most foundational element to effective brain training is healthy oxygen intake. A moving bar on the computer screen was my guide to inhaling and exhaling. I did my best to breathe along with it, using my abdomen, not my chest, and to slow down, relax. I found myself wanting to just get through it -- my usual attitude -- so it took some focus to slow down.

All the while, the monitors recorded my brain waves: theta waves -- the slow moving, resting, low frequency brain waves; and beta waves -- the fast moving, fight or flight brain waves.

Too many theta waves can slow down the brain's processing speed, creating a lack of focus; too few can mean the brain isn't at rest often enough and can indicate sleep or memory problems.

Too many beta waves can cause racing thoughts, anxiety, and impulse control problems -- many of the symptoms associated with ADHD.  

After I got the hang of breathing, Quinn popped in a DVD movie: Get Smart. The breathing bar disappeared from the screen, and I watched the movie while my brain controlled it: an imbalance in my theta and beta waves in different areas of my brain caused the movie to pause, shrink on the screen, or have no sound.

My movie was a mess of stops, starts, and silent movie clips on a little screen -- every three or four minutes! I caught myself thinking about all the work waiting for me at my office, or the next question I wanted to ask technician Quinn, or what I had to pick up for dinner, and bing! movie messed up.

But every time it happened, it drew my attention back to the screen, to my breathing and body tension. I relaxed, refocused on my breathing and the movie, and all was fine again.

"Your brain starts to recognize that its own processes cause the movie to stop," Quinn explains. "Eventually, your brain learns not to go above that threshold." As the movie progressed, Quinn raised and lowered my beta and theta thresholds to force my brain to stay focused.

One man's story: Peak Performance

Like physical workouts to strengthen the body, the brain requires two to three workouts a week with a Neurocore technician. Neurofeedback scores are kept on file and clients are re-tested every 10 weeks to check their progress. As Neurocore improved its testing and brain training expertise, people began to ask what could happen if a high-performing NFL quarterback or a top business mind applied the brain training techniques.

That was the birth of Neurocore's Peak Performance division.

Scott Wierda, a successful Grand Rapids business leader and co-partner of CWD Real Estate Investment, jumped on board the Peak Performance train five years ago.

"You hear about athletes being 'in the zone,'" Wierda says. "As I learned about brain balance, I learned that there actually is a zone and they're actually in it. Neurocore literally can monitor the brain's waves and keep you in the peak performance sector where your calmness and your thoughts are at their best."

Wierda says he originally went to Neurocore to refocus his golf game, but the results he had with the neurofeedback affected every part of his life.

"I don't have as many peaks and valleys emotionally," he says. "When I focused on breathing, I found my body could regulate itself. We started CWD and I still had Jade Pig Ventures. I doubled or tripled my workload. But I'm better at handling it now than I was when I had only one company. I have a clarity of calm focus. I've had guys joke with me and ask, 'Where are you? Are you off on a beach or someplace?' No. I'm just calm."

Wierda says CWD plans to offer interested employees Neurocore sessions onsite -- a service Neurocore offers its corporate clients. He sees Neurocore's brain training as a little cutting-edge now, but something everyone will be doing in the future.

"People go to the gym and workout with their body," Wierda says, "but they're not working out their brain. I think the sky is the limit for Neurocore and what they're doing for people.

Deborah Johnson Wood is Rapid Growth's Development News Editor.

Photography by Adam Bird
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