Long-term improvements in executive functions after frontal-midline theta neurofeedback in a (sub)clinical group

Front Hum Neurosci. 2023 Jun 9:17:1163380. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2023.1163380. eCollection 2023.


Impairments in executive functions (EFs) are common across disorders and can greatly affect daily functioning. Frontal-midline (FM) theta neurofeedback (NF) has been shown effective in enhancing EFs in healthy adults, prompting interest in exploring its potential as an alternative treatment for EFs in (sub)clinical samples. This study aims to determine the effects of FM theta NF on EFs in a sample of 58 adults (aged 20-60 years) with pronounced subjective EF complaints in daily life. Using a pre/post/follow-up design with a sham NF group, the present study assessed upregulation of FM theta in an eight-session individualized FM theta NF training and its immediate and long-term transfer effects on objective and subjective measures of EFs. These included behavioral performance on EF tasks assessing working memory updating (N-back task), set-shifting (Switching task), conflict monitoring (Stroop task), and response inhibition (Stop-signal task), as well as FM theta power during these tasks, and subjective EFs in daily life (BRIEF-A). The results indicate that there are only differences in FM theta self-upregulation between the NF group and sham group when non-responders are excluded from the analysis. Regarding behavioral transfer effects, NF-specific improvements are found in working memory updating reaction time (RT) and conflict monitoring RT variability at 6-month follow-up, but not immediately after the NF training. The effects on FM theta power during the EF tasks and subjective changes in EFs in daily life were not specific to the NF training. As a next step, research should identify the best predictors to stratify NF training, as well as explore ways to improve NF responsiveness, for instance by increasing neuroplasticity.

Keywords: conflict monitoring; executive (dys)functions; frontal-midline theta; neurofeedback; response inhibition; set-shifting; subjective cognitive complaints; working memory updating.