Can 'brain painting' help ADHD patients? Research looks for answers (2024)

Can 'brain painting' help ADHD patients? Research looks for answers (1)

It was like a scene in "Stranger Things."

A student at the University of South Florida put on a cap covered with tiny sensors that record electrical signals in the brain. Then he began to stare at a computer screen.

The student, Tyree Lewis, was stoic. He folded his hands in his lap and silently looked forward.

But as Lewis sat motionless, a blank canvas on the nearby screen started to fill up with shapes: red circles and triangles, green squares.

Lewis was creating art with just his mind. It's a process called "brain painting," when an individual mentally selects colors and shapes to make abstract digital images. It requires intense concentration.

USF computer science and engineering professor Marvin Andujar is studying whether college students diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can use this futuristic technology to improve attention spans and reduce the need for prescription drugs, which can have side effects.

Lewis, a doctoral student who's assisting with the project in Andujar's lab, performed a June demonstration of the brain exercise for Tampa Bay Times reporters. He does not have ADHD.

"The overall goal of this project," Andujar said, is to eventually get the brain-painting tool "into the hands of people outside the lab."

"How can we help them create some sort of habit (where), while they're improving their attention, at the same time they're also improving their emotional state?"

'We need this'

Andujar, a computer scientist in the USF College of Engineering and director of the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab, previously focused on developing mind-controlled drones using brain-computer interfaces.

They allow users to operate drones with an electronic headband known as an electroencephalography system, which reads electrical signals in the brain. Those signals are translated into commands that prompt the drones to move. This process requires the participants' complete attention to be successful.

In 2019, when showing off his drones at a business and technology summit in Tampa, Andujar said people with ADHD approached him and asked about the technology, saying it might help them improve their short attention spans. College students with ADHD also expressed interest after seeing it used elsewhere.

"The community ... would tell me, 'We need this. This is useful,'" Andujar said.

ADHD is one of the most common mental health conditions, according to the World Health Organization. It's typically diagnosed in children and often lasts into adulthood. In 2016, an estimated 5.4 million kids ages 2 to 17 had ADHD in the U.S., accounting for about 8% of the age group.

At least 60% of children with the neurodevelopmental condition will experience symptoms as adults, researchers say. An estimated 2% to 8% of college students have ADHD.

Symptoms include hyperactivity, impulsiveness and difficulty paying attention. The condition is usually treated with behavioral therapy and prescription drugs such as Adderall, a medication that helps people concentrate.

Common Adderall side effects include decreased appetite and sleeping problems.

During a German study in 2010, a group of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, used brain-computer interface technology to brain paint. It offered them a new form of creative expression.

So Andujar wondered: Could those with ADHD use brain painting to improve their attention spans and emotional well-being—and minimize the amount of medication they need?

Experimental art

In 2020, the National Science Foundation funded Andujar's brain-painting research with an $80,000 grant. He and his lab have since collected data on eight USF students who each used the brain-painting technology six times. Two of the participants had ADHD. The rest said they have struggled with their attention spans.

Here's how the brain exercise works: An individual straps on a $20,000 electrode cap dotted with sensors, then sits in front of a computer screen. Sometimes, the subject also wears an Oculus Rift headset to paint in virtual reality.

The screen displays color, shape and control options. The sensors detect electrical signals in the brain when a participant is staring at a specific option, eventually prompting a blank canvas to fill up with their selection.

Users must be totally focused on their painting, Andujar said. They shouldn't chat with friends or check their texts. If they do, they probably won't be able to paint what they want. That's because the sensors won't detect them concentrating on their chosen option.

The process can be tiring for first-time participants, Lewis said.

Early results are promising, Andujar said. Five of the eight students have noted slight improvements in their attention spans.

Participants need an hour or two to create an initial brain painting. But the more they use the technology, he said, the faster they become.

The researchers plan to recruit more USF students to keep collecting data. The team also must secure additional funding because most of their grant has been spent, Andujar said.

At some point, he wants to host an art exhibit to showcase brain paintings.

But above all else, Andujar said he hopes to turn the technology into an effective and affordable therapy for those with ADHD.

2022 Tampa Bay Times.

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Can 'brain painting' help ADHD patients? Research looks for answers (2024)


Does painting help ADHD? ›

The brain is stimulated by creating art, and produces higher levels of dopamine. This is especially important for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD as increased dopamine levels improve concentration. Expressing creativity through art also elevates serotonin and reduces stress levels.

How does brain paint work? ›

It is a non-invasive therapy where sensors are attached to the patient's scalp and then answer a series of questions that maps out the brain. The technician then detects the brain's response to certain stimuli or questions. Once this is done, it can be used to inhibit negative behavior and reward positive behavior.

What is expressive art therapy for ADHD? ›

The Role of Expressive Arts Therapy in ADHD Management

Alternative Outlet for Expression: Traditional methods of communication can sometimes feel limiting for individuals with ADHD. Expressive Arts Therapy provides a non-verbal, creative outlet to express thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

Does painting help the brain? ›

Painting boosts memory recollection skills and works to sharpen the mind through conceptual visualization and implementation. People who frequently use creative outlets such as writing, painting, and drawing have less chance of developing memory loss illnesses, like dementia and Alzheimer's, as they age.

Does painting improve concentration? ›

Painting helps improve creativity and cognitive ability for both sets of people. Practice and concentration, two skills intrinsic in left-brain people, enable these people to develop artistic skills at their own rate.

What is brain paint neurofeedback for ADHD? ›

BrainPaint aims to identify the types of patterns and music that induce a relaxed state, and then to reproduce (or “paint”) them by practicing becoming calm. Patients ideally learn how to activate certain centers of the brain that may be under-stimulated.

What color activates the brain? ›

Some theorists argue that an environment rich in the color orange increases the oxygen supply to the brain, stimulating mental activity while simultaneously loosening peoples' inhibitions. An increased oxygen supply also leads to feeling invigorated and getting ready to 'get things done.

What is the best therapy for ADHD emotional regulation? ›

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which features a mindfulness component to help build resilience against stressors, also shows promise for emotional regulation. Though studies are scarce, mindfulness training itself also appears to have some benefit for emotional dysregulation.

Why is drawing good for ADHD? ›

It encourages focus, builds motor skills, helps reduce stress from overthinking, and most importantly gives these kids an opportunity to express themselves freely without judgement or limitation.

What mental illness does art therapy help? ›

Benefits of Art Therapy

Clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues can benefit from expressing themselves creatively. Some situations in which art therapy might be utilized include: Adults experiencing severe stress.

Do ADHD people like art? ›

ADHD and the arts

There's no research to suggest that innate artistic abilities are tied to ADHD. In other words, having ADHD doesn't make you an especially talented musician or painter. But some experts think there are aspects of ADHD that might play a role in thriving creatively.

Is painting a good sensory activity? ›

Finger painting is a great way for children to explore, learn and develop through sensory play. When children can feel the cool, squishy texture of the paint and experiment with colour and patterns, it encourages their creativity. It's also a good way for children to express emotions.

What are ADHD people good at doing? ›

Imagination & Creativity

Individuals with ADHD don't just think outside the box; we create our own fortresses with our unbounded imagination and creativity. "My son can take you on an adventure and make your imagination light up while just standing in our living room." — Wendy E. "I'm amazed at ADHDers' creativity.

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