Clinics across Canada are advertising an unproven alternative health treatment to help with the symptoms of dementia, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.

The technology, called "brainwave optimization," is described on one company's website as a holistic process that "guides the brain back to its natural, healthy, balanced state." The program is marketed as a treatment for dementia as well as for concussions, depression, sleep disorders, stress, ADHD, addiction and many other health problems.

Marketplace investigated one chain of clinics called Valentus, that claims that patients with dementia and other disorders can benefit from brainwave optimization. Valentus has clinics in Victoria, Vancouver and Calgary.

Henri-Barghava

“It sounds intuitively sexy to people: I can rebalance my brain and that sounds like a good thing. But no real neuroscientist that I know of really thinks that their technology is actually doing that,” says behavioural neurologist Dr. Alex Henri-Bhargava (CBC)

During a brainwave optimization session, electrodes are placed on a person's head. The electrical activity in the brain is converted into musical tones, which are played back to the person through earphones. The basic package of nine sessions costs up to $2,500.

"It sounds intuitively sexy to people: I can rebalance my brain and that sounds like a good thing. But no real neuroscientist that I know of really thinks that their technology is actually doing that," behavioural neurologist Dr. Alex Henri-Bhargava told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington.

"I think patients are being misled into getting an alternative form of treatment thinking that it's a medically recognized therapy."

'They are giving you a little hope'

About 747,000 Canadians are living with dementia, the most common form of which is Alzheimer's disease. That number is expected to double in 20 years.There is no cure or treatment.

Wendy was involved in the care of a friend, Andre, who was suffering from an aggressive form of dementia when he went to Valentus for help. Marketplace agreed to withhold Wendy's and Andre's last names to protect Andre's privacy and because he is currently unable to speak for himself.

Chris Hammer

Valentus psychologist Chris Hammer says when it comes to dementia, he lets potential clients make up their own minds about whether to try brainwave optimization. (CBC)

Wendy suggested going to Valentus after her son heard about the clinic. Andre paid $2,500 for brainwave optimization. 

She told Marketplace the clinic staff said they didn't know what the results of the treatment would be, but that it had the potential to help Andre.

"They encourage you because they say they don't know and that in itself is encouragement. Dementia is such an awful, awful thing; they are giving you a little hope. They definitely did not discourage it," she says.

Henri-Bhargava, who is Andre's neurologist as well as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, says the treatment had no effect on his health.

Company says brain can 'reorganize itself'

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based manufacturer of brainwave optimization, Brain State Technologies, markets the technology to treat dementia and memory loss in general. It also recommends the technology to spa owners, yoga teachers and life coaches as a way to boost profits.

Valentus psychologist Chris Hammer said the majority of their clientele have post-concussive symptoms or have been in accidents, and that 80 per cent of those people experience a reduction of symptoms after brain optimization treatments.

brainwave optimization

During a brainwave optimization session, the electrical activity in the brain is converted into musical tones, which are played back to the person through earphones. Practitioners claim that the technology “guides the brain back to its natural, healthy balanced state.” (CBC)

Hammer says when it comes to treating dementia, he lets potential clients make up their own minds about whether to try the treatment. "I'm not going to try to lead somebody to do it. I'm just not," he says.

But when a Marketplace producer attended an open house as a prospective customer at the clinic's Vancouver location, Hammer told her they have seen dementia clients with varying degrees of results. He also said that he doesn't know whether the treatment will reverse the dementia, but that everything is generated in the brain.

"The brain has a brilliant way of being able to reorganize itself," he told her. "We can't make those promises on how people will respond. We just know overall the success rates are fairly strong, very high – the potential is very high."

Evidence is anecdotal

As evidence that brainwave optimization is promising, Hammer pointed to research conducted on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients.

Henri-Bhargava, however, says that research is limited: It included only two Alzheimer's disease patients, had no control group to help determine if the results were a placebo effect, and relied on self-reported outcomes.

"We have decades of research in dementia now where we have lots of validated scales by which we can measure these sorts of things in a properly conducted study. There would be much better ways of conducting a preliminary study than that study.

"It's as if we figured out that we can hear our heartbeats," he said. "And you go in with angina, heart disease and they say, 'Well listen, it's very easy to fix, we'll get you to listen to your heartbeat, we'll make that heartbeat into a nice song, you listen to the song and it'll fix your heart.'

"That's really what they're claiming to be able to do with your brain."

Valentus' marketing features testimonials from former NHL players and Olympics athletes who've said the treatment helped alleviate their post-concussion symptoms. Marketplace talked to several Valentus clients who said the treatment helped with a variety of problems including insomnia, depression and post-concussive symptoms such as lack of focus and memory loss.

Dr. Carmela Tartaglia, a neurologist who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases with Toronto's University Health Network, says the company's results are anecdotal and not supported by evidence. She has looked at the research that the manufacturer, Brain State Technologies, presents as evidence.

"They present no data from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial that this intervention works on any of the problems they list."

And when it comes to dementia, Henri-Bhargava says your money is better spent somewhere else.

"If I was suffering from dementia, I would spend that money on extra help at home, maybe an exercise program if I was at the milder end of dementia, getting my affairs in order, taking a vacation while I still could. There's lots of better uses for that money, in my opinion."