Neurofeedback Helps Woman Recover After Motorcycle Crash

Neuro patient Bianca G.

February 22, 2019

After finishing your lunch, can you remember what foods you just ate? For most of us, it's a simple task. For Bianca G., it was a big step on a 13-year journey.

In the summer of 2005, Bianca was a college-bound 18-year-old and National Merit Scholar. But a devastating motorcycle crash left her with a traumatic brain injury that kept her in a coma for nearly a year – and facing an uncertain future.

"She couldn't do anything," says Bianca's mother, Karen. "She couldn't speak. She couldn't walk. It took her over a year to speak and two years to learn how to walk again."

The crash left Bianca's brain in rough shape. Tearing was extensive. The occipital, temporal and both sides of her frontal lobes were all damaged. Much of her brain was "missing," Karen explains. The ventricles – the parts of the brain that produce cerebrospinal fluid – grew bigger to fill the gaps.

"If you look at her MRI, there are little dots all throughout her brain tissue, and I remember asking (her neurologist), 'What are those little stars?' and he replied, 'That's everywhere her brain tore,'" Karen says.

The injuries were so severe that specialists at most of the nation's top brain injury centers wouldn't take Bianca's case. They didn't think they'd be able to help.

Bianca ultimately landed at Miami's Ryder Trauma Center for what would be a memorable six-week stay. While she was there, Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the South Florida coast – and the hospital's lower floor.

Bianca's Miami neurologist recommended the family find a neuro-biofeedback specialist to assist with her recovery. After a long search, they found Tiffany Burch at Integrative Health at The University of Kansas Health System.

Karen was skeptical that neurofeedback would do any good. But then Bianca had a brain map done.

"The mapped her and they said, 'Well, she doesn't sleep, does she?'" Karen says. "I don't think people can really comprehend it, but she really did not sleep. She'd maybe get 15 minutes here and there. She was up all night for seven years."

No more sleepless nights

Sleep disorders aren't unusual for people with brain injuries. The brain's slower-frequency alpha and delta waves help us relax and move into deep sleep, and our sleep often suffers when our brain waves aren't right. Bianca's right temporal lobe had far too many waves, her neurologist says, essentially keeping her in a near-constant alert.

"If you can't rest, you can't heal," Karen says.

She says a big factor in her decision to try neurofeedback is that the brain map was able to detect Bianca's sleep problem.

Neurofeedback is a type of operant conditioning that helps train the brain. During the sessions, Burch attaches sensors to specific areas of the patient's scalp and has them watch a movie or other video. As it plays, the video's image shrinks and the sound distorts until the patient can figure out how to make it return to normal. Over time, this helps the brain learn to change designated behaviors.

An early goal for the neurofeedback sessions was to get Bianca back sleeping within six months. Bianca did it in half that time.

"About three months later, she slept quite a bit of the night. My husband and I were like, 'Is she dead?' And then she started being able to sleep in the afternoons, and she could sleep for, like, an hour. 45 minutes or an hour. Or sometimes two hours in the afternoon," Karen says. "That was one of the first things that happened that I think really helped us so much."

While Bianca still doesn't sleep all night every night, Karen says the sleep she does get makes things much better for the whole family.

Try to remember

Bianca improved in other ways, too. After the crash, her memory was so disrupted that she didn't recognize herself in photos. Within a few minutes of finishing lunch, she couldn't recall what she'd just eaten. She'd often forget that she'd eaten at all.

But as the neurofeedback sessions progressed, Bianca started remembering all sorts of things, including some random ones. She once recalled the exact location where Karen had stashed a tiny amount of emergency cash nearly a year earlier. During a recent car trip, Karen thought she'd missed the exit to Parkville. Bianca noticed a "Welcome to Missouri" sign and concluded that since they just crossed into the state, Parkville's exit was still up ahead of them.

"You have to watch, you have to interpret, you have to think ahead," Karen says. "That's huge for somebody who couldn't even say her name."

Before the crash, Bianca had been a proficient horse jumper. When she was finally helped back onto a horse about two years after her crash – with six people helping to keep her in place – she instantly remembered the sport's terms and techniques.

Reading and writing were also nearly impossible for Bianca in the wake of her crash. She struggled to follow text on a page and would write one word on top of the other.

"She could sit in math class and blurt out the answer, but she couldn't write the problem down," Karen says.

As Bianca slowly improved, Karen felt her daughter needed some structure back in her life. She accompanied Bianca to community college and helped her get an associate's degree in art.

"She's come so far," Karen says. "Now reading's not a problem."

Throughout it all, Bianca continued getting neurofeedback. Even though they have scaled back from three sessions a week to once a month, Karen says her daughter still shows improvement every time.

"I keep thinking, 'Well, we're going to come to a plateau here somewhere.' But every time we come, it helps her," Karen says. "Either she sleeps better or she's a little more focused or she'll just say some wild thing that you would never expect someone to say."

'Today, I'm swimming'

One recent improvement was sudden and shocking.

"She could not remember how to swim," Karen says. "And she could swim. She was an incredible swimmer."

After the accident, Bianca couldn't even remember how to hold her breath in the water. When asked to blow bubbles in a basic swimming lesson, she'd inhale instead of exhale. Anything beyond wading became a terrifying ordeal for Bianca, especially putting her face in the water.

But in a trip to the pool earlier this summer, things changed.

"We're sitting on chairs and she said, 'Today, I'm swimming.' I said, 'You are?' She got in the pool, with assistance, and did breaststroke and backstroke and swam underwater. All of the sudden that memory just connected," Karen says. "One girl was with us and said, 'If I didn't see this with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it.'"

Be committed

Karen believes neurofeedback has been a critical factor in her daughter's recovery. She also stresses the importance of the family's patience and commitment to it. While a typical patient may need about 40 sessions to show improvement, some people try it and give up after five or ten.

"You have to do the 40 treatments," Karen says. "It's just going to work out. You can't make your mind up in two weeks. You have to be committed to saying, 'Hey, I'm going to try this much.' I really do believe it works."

Karen says Bianca's long-term memory is now "pretty darn good." Her short-term memory is excellent. She no longer forgets what she just ate. Before-and-after EEGs also tell a positive story.

"If you look at her EEG from before when we first started and then three years later, it's like 'Oh my gosh, what a difference.' It's like sawtooth (patterns) and then it's much more organized. So that, in and of itself, to me, says something," Karen says. "Whether she's done it on her own or not? I don't think so. Because we went seven years (before neurofeedback), and even though she continued to improve over seven years, the sleep and the memory were almost an instant thing. So it was crazy."

To learn more about Bianca's case and her life-changing experience in Miami, read Karen's 2014 book, "Six Weeks at Ryder," available on Amazon.

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