By Mia Summerson
Niagara Gazette — People who suffer from problems such as migraines and hypertension now have a new option to help control their symptoms, thanks to the efforts of a psychology professor from Lewiston.
Jim Abbondanza is using biofeedback to create a system that helps people see what is happening in their body, combined with other psychological tools such as audiotapes to help patients relax so they can learn to control their bodily functions, including blood flow and heart rate. The feedback from the computer screen helps to affirm a patient’s progress.
“If you want to learn to sink a basket, you stand back and toss the ball,” Abbondanza said. “When you shoot and miss, your eyes provide you with feedback that tells you that you have to shoot with a little less strength or more to the right.
“Without that visual feedback you would not be able to learn to sink that basket.” He added that the brain makes chemical pathways that helps people learn how to do things. That’s why a person can learn to shoot a basket in the same way they can learn to control bodily functions.
Abbondanza, who retired three years ago, and still teaches part-time at Niagara County Community College, has been teaching psychology for almost 50 years. In the mid-70s he said, being fond of technology, he took up an interest in the study of biofeedback.
He was the first person in the U.S. certified to practice biofeedback with patients and created the first biofeedback lab in the SUNY system at NCCC.
One of Abbondanza’s success stories has come in the form of 12-year-old Liz Collins, who suffers from migraines and a form of a disease called Raynaud’s, which makes it difficult for blood to get to the tips of the extremities.
Since, according to Abbondanza, migraines are technically high blood pressure in the head, his focus with Liz is to help her learn to redirect the flow of her blood.
“It’s worked really well for me,” Liz said of her experience using biofeedback. “I use a system that Jim has created on his computer. It measures my temperature.
“I have to control my blood flow from my head to my fingertips. The best way to do it is to just think to yourself, ‘my right arm feels warm and heavy,’ and then it just starts to feel warm and heavy. It’s really amazing actually.”
“The more you use it the better you get at it,” said Abbondanza. “There are two criteria that we aim at here, one is recognizing the onset symptoms, and the second one would be to increase the temperature of the hand very rapidly. The more she’s doing it the shorter the time gets.”
Liz has reached a point where she can control her blood flow without having to look a computer screen, and she has memorized the audiotapes. She reported that she was recently able to raise the temperature of her fingers 20 degrees in 412 seconds. Now, she has learned to identify the onset of her migraines and can use biofeedback to stop them about half of the time, she said.
Abbondanza, whose company is called Quantum Research & Prova Research Inc., says his next step is to create an online network where patients can log on using a smart-phone app or a computer and inexpensive equipment to practice biofeedback. This way the program can reach more people for less money. Another benefit of the online system, Abbondanza says, is peer support, so that patients can discuss their progress together and help each other. The plan is to have a website launched by the end of the year, he said.