Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

An EEG Only Scratches the Surface of the Brain

By Marko Petrovic

Chiropractors claim that “functional neurology” can treat conditions ranging from epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease to autism and stroke, but the technology they use isn’t up to the task.

The Australian chiropractic community is being scrutinised more than ever before. Its private and public health funding has been questioned as this billion-dollar industry struggles to prove its effectiveness. Universities teaching chiropractic have also come under fire from lobbying groups that insist that pseudo­scientific “health” courses should be dropped.

In an effort to stem the bleeding, chiropractors in Australia are increasingly diversifying their services. Such attempts usually centre on techniques that appear complex on face value.

One example of this is functional neurology, practitioners of which claim they can treat a plethora of conditions by using electroencephalography (EEG) to locate and treat “weak” areas of the brain. These weak areas are then magically improved with a combination of chiropractic adjustments, brain training, massage and even diet.

The claims that practitioners make about health conditions they can supposedly treat are strange and dangerous. Such claims include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart arrhythmias, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathies and strokes. These are all serious health conditions that usually require a team of trained medical personnel to diagnose and treat. If the treatment of any of them was left solely to an individual who practices functional neurology, the consequences would be dire for the patient.

A typical client would not understand the mechanisms of brain scanning technology and thus be able to evaluate the legitimacy of the claims. A lay person wouldn’t immediately link these kinds of techniques to chiropractic, and this serves to establish some kind of legitimacy in the client’s mind, but there is no credible scientific research whatsoever to back up any claims made by the proponents of functional neurology. The field itself is a simple rebranding something called “chiropractic neurology”, and uses endless word salads in an effort to suggest scientific credibility. Practitioners of this brand of pseudoscience often rely on testimonials and junk science to sell their product and themselves.

What should stand as warnings to anyone thinking of trying functional neurology are the disclaimers at the bottom of the web pages of clinics offering functional neurology. For example, the disclaimer published by the Australasian Academy of Functional Neurology (http://www.aafn.org.au) states that the “practitioners.... are not medically trained”, the information is “not meant to convey a medically trained opinion, or specifically a medical neurologist [sic] expert opinion,” and that “Patients who attend for functional neurology services should seek a second opinion from a registered specialist neurologist or medical practitioner”.

While chiropractors may believe that these disclaimers establish them as valid members of the allied health community, claims that these techniques are effective make a mockery of the substantial training and expertise required to identify and diagnose these complex disorders.

EEGs do allow electrical activity of the brain along the scalp to be recorded, but the extraordinary hubris of those who practice functional neurology is revealed by the very tool that is the flagship of their whole operation.

EEGs are wonderful and legitimate tools, but they have one very important drawback. They measure brain activity below the upper layers of the brain very poorly. So here we have a treatment based on the premise that the whole brain is scanned to identify weak areas but it uses a tool that can’t accurately measure the whole brain.

In addition, the resolution of the EEG is poor and the proclaimed correspondence between brain regions and functional abilities is far from established in the scientific literature. This is why EEGs are only typically used to identify seizure activity and not measure brain morphology or functional abilities. This requires much higher resolution such as functional magnetic resonance imaging.

While EEGs are often used in psychological research to look at differences in brain activity between brain hemispheres, no psychologist with even a rudimentary understanding of the brain would claim that these trace readings correspond to complex behavioural disorders such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Unfortunately for these chiropractors, neurologists, neuropsychologists and medical professionals do understand this technology, and can easily refute these claims.


Marko Petrovic is an exercise physiologist who is currently studying Mechanical Engineering at Curtin University.