Doctors Treat PTSD by Letting Patients Listen to Their Own Brainwaves

By listening to their own brains, patients healed themselves.

Flickr / digitalbob8

According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD affects seven to eight percent of the general population. Combat veterans experience PTSD at about twice the rate of the general population: 11 to 20 percent of Iraq war vets, 12 percent of Gulf War vets, and around 30 percent of Vietnam War vets experience PTSD at some point. For this reason, veterans have been of particular interest to researchers trying to treat PTSD.

Neurologists may have a new tool to help these people, and it’s actually not too different from a treatment that’s been around for years. In a small study of military service members, published December 22 in the journal Military Medical Research, doctors converted PTSD patients’ brainwaves into audio and let the patients listen to the sounds of their brain activity in real-time. Hearing the sounds of their own brains, it seems, helped them to heal themselves.

The neurologists, from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, found that their patients’ brains could self-correct the erratic brainwaves associated with PTSD and that the patients’ symptoms improved after a couple weeks of treatment. This technique is similar to biofeedback, a treatment approach that alerts patients to the biomarkers of stress-related conditions to help them learn to manage these symptoms.

By letting patients "hear" their erratic brainwaves, doctors can empower patients' brains to auto-correct, easing symptoms of PTSD.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

All 18 of the veterans treated with this new approach experienced reductions in PTSD symptoms, as well as improvements in autonomic nervous system measures such as grip strength and blood pressure. These subjects had experienced anywhere between one and 25 years of PTSD symptoms. This approach could offer alternatives for patients who don’t respond adequately to therapy or medication.

The approach, called high-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring — HIRREM for short — involves converting a patient’s brainwaves, as measured by electrodes on the scalp, into audible tones with a computer algorithm. As the patient listens to these simulated brainwaves — which researchers say the brain can recognize as brainwaves — as they’re occurring, the patient’s brain auto-corrects to smooth out the erratic patterns. In turn, this smoothing of brainwaves was associated with improved symptoms.

“Various aspects of the intervention point to its promise as an innovative modality for the remediation of the effects of traumatic stress for active-duty military service members, veterans, and other populations,” write the study’s authors. They also note that HIRREM improved insomnia in patients, a symptom that has proven particularly difficult to treat.

Giphy/ Jay Sprogell

Symptoms of PTSD can include re-experiencing trauma, negative mood, avoidance, and heightened arousal, which can look like anxiety and depression. In this study, 15 participants were active-duty military personnel, while three were veterans. All had either received diagnosis and treatment. Most of the subjects were from special forces, meaning they were more likely to have experienced up-close combat violence.

At the beginning of the study, patients participated in an array of tests to measure psychological measures of PTSD, depression, anxiety, as well as physical markers of these conditions. Over 12 days, patients received an average of 19.5 HIRREM treatment sessions, in which they listened to computer-generated versions of their brainwaves. In follow-up sessions, they were tested again. They all showed statistically significant improvement in their psychological conditions.

Even though neuroscientists aren’t totally sure what actually causes brainwaves, they do know what irregular brainwave patterns look like. HIRREM represents just one of many recent efforts to alter brainwaves in humans. This study, while small, certainly indicates that more research is called for.


This study has some significant shortcomings, too, though. Notably, it only tested a small group of people, and it did not utilize a control group. Additionally, the patients knew what the treatment was supposed to do, which leaves them susceptible to suggestibility and the placebo effect. Nevertheless, the study’s authors are confident that their findings provide a solid basis for further investigation.

“Although the improvements demonstrated may have been influenced by subjective expectations, positive social interactions with study personnel, or other ‘placebo’ components, it seems unlikely that these non-specific factors were the fundamental drivers,” they write.

Background: Military-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) is associated with numerous symptom clusters and diminished autonomic cardiovascular regulation. High-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring (HIRREM®) is a noninvasive, closed-loop, allostatic, acoustic stimulation neurotechnology that produces real-time translation of dominant brain frequencies into audible tones of variable pitch and timing to support the auto-calibration of neural oscillations. We report clinical, autonomic, and functional effects after the use of HIRREM® for symptoms of military-related PTS.
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