The story did accurately portray the overall state of the evidence on neurofeedback for ADHD and emphasized the lack of well controlled studies supporting its effectiveness. It also provided useful information about how to avoid untrained therapists, and was generally good in its approach to the other criteria that we look at.
In the final analysis, the story applied the healthy skepticism which is a hallmark of good journalism to this topic. But a significant flaw at its core makes this story less useful than it could have been and makes us wonder why it was considered newsworthy, since there is apparently no compelling recent research to discuss. It might have been better to wait for the results of the first placebo-controlled study of neurofeedback for children with ADHD (which the story says will be out in just a few weeks) to be published.
For many parents, medication is not an appealing option for treating a child’s ADHD symptoms. The availability of better non-pharmacologic alternatives would therefore be an important and welcome development. Journalists have to be careful about how they characterize the research supporting uNPRoven approaches such as neurofeedback, however. If there’s evidence that a treatment is effective, we should expect to hear descriptions of the relevant studies and estimates of how big the benefits are for which specific outcomes.
The story sidebar estimates that a full course of treatment can cost $3000 or more. It could have added that this treatment is unlikely to be covered by many insurance companies.
This was the biggest hole in an otherwise reasonably solid story. The article claims that there is “growing evidence” that neurofeedback can help treat people with ADHD. However, the story never describes any of the results of this purported increase in research that supposedly documents these benefits. The closest we come is the description of a study which hasn’t even been published yet.
The story also suggests that neurofeedback’s benefits might last longer than those of medication. Again, however, we are never given any sound basis to believe that neurofeedback works at all — let alone better than other treatments.
At the same time, the story leans heavily on testimony from a journalist who has written a book about ADHD and claims neurofeedback worked for her and her son. We are told that the primary improvement she saw with her son was that he was “easier to live with.” Although this kind of anecdotal report can be useful to add context to scientific findings, it is certainly no substitute for reporting on the actual clinical outcomes of research.
The story failed to discuss any potential harms of neurofeedback treatment. The most prominent of these is that patients could forego other treatment approaches that have better supporting evidence and are more likely to reduce symptoms. There is also some evidence that neurofeedback can cause seizures or make symptoms worse in some individuals with psychological disorders. In addition, the need for frequent treatments may necessitate taking a child out of school.
Readers should come away from this story with a generally accurate feel for where the research on this treatment stands. The story told readers early on that neurofeedback is “scientifically uNPRoved” for the treatment of ADHD. It backs up this contention later in this story by noting that almost all research on this treatment hasn’t involved a placebo control group. And the only study to include such a group apparently hasn’t released its results yet and seems to have involved a very small number of patients. In addition, the story quotes an expert who emphasizes that other forms of treatment (e.g. medication and behavior therapy) have better evidence to support their effectiveness for ADHD.
We did think the story focused a bit too much on a single patient anecdote (a deficiency discussed later under the “Benefits” criterion) — an emphasis which makes the treatment sound very promising with little justification. The story could have struck a better balance by toning this section down a bit.
No disease-mongering in this story.
In addition to extensive comments from the journalist book author who discusses her experience with neurofeedback, the story quotes a Duke University researcher who is an expert on ADHD and offers some counterbalancing perspective.
The story quotes a researcher who says that two other approaches — medication and behavior therapy — have a more extensive research base supporting their use for ADHD compared with neurofeedback.
It’s clear from the story that this type of treatment is available to the general public. We like that the story cautioned readers to look out for unqualified therapists and gave tips for finding reputable clinicians. The story could have been more specific about how many trained professionals there are and how easy it is to find them outside of large population centers.
The story does not oversell the novelty of neurofeedback for the treatment of ADHD.
This story does not appear to be based on a news release.