By Jolene Ross, Ph.D., BCIAC Senior Fellow, EEGC

My son, then a senior in high school, a student in a very popular psychology course, proudly shared with me a tidbit of psycho-trivia he had recently learned: IQ does not change. I corrected him gently, telling him that his course did not account for the effect of Neurofeedback.

Most people are familiar with the term IQ (Intelligence Quotient) but what does it really measure, and is it true that it never changes? Intelligence has been defined in different ways including abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning,learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving.

David Wechsler, an American Psychologist, is best know for his contributions to the field of Intelligence testing.  He originally created an adult test to find out more about his patients at the Bellevue clinic being dissatisfied with the Binet IQ Test, which was in use at the time.  He developed the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) in 1939, theWechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) in 1949 and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) in 1967. The tests are still based on his philosophy that intelligence is “the global capacity to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with [one’s] environment.”

Wechsler scales are generally reported as a verbal score, a performance score and a full scale score which reflects both verbal and performance combined.

One of the most notable proponents of the IQ is Linda S. Gottfredson, a scientist and educator who published a highly regarded article in Scientific American.  Gottfredson, “Intelligence as measured by IQ tests is the single most effective predictor known of individual performance at school and on the job.”

So is IQ a stable measure or does it change?

Research on the Wechsler Scales of Intelligence find stable Verbal, Performance and Full Scale IQ scores on retest 7 months later, 3 years later, 15 years later and 17 years later.  Some qualifications apply.

It turns out that, due to some random factors, IQ scores can vary about 5 points from week to week, and can often change by 10 points or even more over a period of years.  Assuming an alternate version of the test is used to factor out the effects of practice, people can vary slightly from day to day and week to week.  Changes in health both physical and emotional, sleep, life stresses, positive events, diet: all of these can affect performance enough to improve IQ slightly or to reduce IQ significantly.  Natural improvements by as much as 10 points or even 15 can happen but take years of education if it happens at all.   A 10 to 15 point increase is considered very significant.  Fifteen points is a full standard deviation on the Wechsler Scales.  This is a major change.  Fifteen points is enough to put a person into a different intelligence category.  It is also known that IQ declines with age.

Efforts to increase IQ through various cognitive rehabilitation and enhancement programs have resulted in some improvements.  However, continued practice is necessary to maintain these gains.

Reports of improved IQ scores for children with various attentional, neurological and learning disorders are especially remarkable, given that IQ scores are generally very stable and not particularly malleable. Cheng, Liu, and Gong (1993) reported that across a 1.5 to 2 year interval, both learning disabled and normal children displayed stable Verbal, Performance and Full Scale IQ scores on a Chinese version of the WISC-R. In 1991 Streissguth, Randels, and Smith reported that IQ scores of patients with fetal alcohol syndrome or possible fetal alcohol effects remained stable over the average test/retest interval of 8 years. Both Haddad, Juliano, and Vaughan (1994) and Kaye and Baron (1987) reported that with learning disabled children WISC-R Verbal IQ scores tended to decrease while Performance IQ scores increased over a 3-year period.

Herman H. Spitz reviewed the history of attempts to raise IQ in developmentally delayed and/or culturally disadvantaged children. The efforts included early intervention and compensatory education programs such as Head Start, behavior modification, medical and dietary interventions, and various sensory and motor therapies, which have not shown any significant effect in raising intelligence scores according to the conclusion in the Spitz article.  (Spitz HH. The Raising of Intelligence: A Selected History of Attempts to Raise Retarded Intelligence. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc; 1986.)

Enter Neurofeedback

Surmell and Ertem published a study in the prestigious Journal Clinical EEG and Neuroscience in January, 2010.

This study was a clinical case series using Quantitative EEG (QEEG) guided Neurofeedback in the treatment of mental retardation.  It was performed at the Living Mental Health Center for Research and Education in Istanbul, Turkey.  All 23 subjects, ages 7-16 years received Neurofeedback training. Some of the subjects were very poor in reading and some had illegible handwriting, and most subjects had academic failures, impulsive behavior, very poor attention, concentration, memory problems, and poor social skills.  Fourteen out of 23 subjects formerly took medications without any improvement.  Between 80 and 160 Neurofeedback training sessions were completed, depending on the case.  None of the subjects received any special education during Neurofeedback treatment.

Nineteen out of 23 subjects showed significant improvement on the WISC-R. Two showed no improvement on total IQ although improvement was seen on some of the subtests.

“All children showed behavioral improvement, with a reduction of impulsivity, as well as reduction of aggression, and an apparent clinical improvement in sociability observed in the clinical interview.  Academic skills were improved from the baseline.  Five children stopped wetting their pants, 2 stopped soiling their pants, and 3 children had no more constipation problems.  Five children stopped asking the same questions over and over in an obsessive manner.  Three subjects stopped stuttering, 8 stopped lying chronically. Five children showed substantial improvement in fine and gross movement problems, and 5 children stopped biting their fingernails. Eleven children got along well with their siblings. Seizure frequency, severity and duration were reduced for 1 of the children with epilepsy.”

This study provided the first evidence of positive effects of Neurofeedback treatment in mental retardation.  For further research, see below.

So why would IQ improve with Neurofeedback and not with enrichment programs?  Let’s look at what the Wechsler tests.

Each subtest of the Wechsler IQ test is timed.  Based on the results of the Surmell and Artem study, a number of the subjects were unable to complete the subtests on the Wechsler Scales.  Neurofeedback increases processing speed.  That means, a person will answer more questions in the allotted time.

How else can Neurofeedback help IQ?

Wechsler IQ tests include the following subtests:

Verbal scales:

Information: Similar to “Trivial Pursuit,” this subtest measures breadth of factual information. It is strongly influenced by culture. An American education and intact long-term memory will contribute to a higher score. Sample question (not really on the tests): “What is the capital of France?”

This subtest relies on processing speed and ability to retrieve stored information, all amenable to improvement with Neurofeedback.

Comprehension: This subtest measures understanding of social conventions and common sense. It is also culturally loaded. Sample question: “What is the thing to do if you find an injured person laying on the sidewalk?”

Social competence and problem solving improve with Neurofeedback.

Digit Span: Requires the repetition of number strings forward and backwards. Measures concentration, attention and immediate memory. Test takers with attention deficit or anxiety issues will have lower scores.

Neurofeedback improves attention and reduces anxiety.

Similarities: This subtest measures verbal abstract reasoning and conceptualization abilities. The individual is asked how two things are alike. Sample question: “How are a snake and an alligator alike?”

Abstract thinking is an example of higher order thinking represented in the frontal area of the brain, an area that responds well to Neurofeedback.

Vocabulary: This test measures receptive and expressive vocabulary.  It is the best overall measure of general intelligence (assuming the test-taker’s native language is English).  Sample question: “What is the meaning of the word ‘articulate’?”

Language is primarily represented on the left and right anterior and central portions of the brain. When function in these areas is improved through Neurofeedback language retrieval and comprehension improve.

Arithmetic: Consists of mathematical word problems. These questions measure attention, concentration, and numeric reasoning. Sample question: “John bought three books for five dollars each, and paid ten percent sales tax.  How much did he pay all together?”

As most parents know, word problems can be very difficult for children. Neurofeedback can improve their ability to attend, concentrate, reason, and store information in working memory.

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