Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Inside the brain school

June 10, 2024

About a decade ago, a U.S. brainwave scientist got permission to experiment on Indigenous children in Canada in an attempt to cure them of their traumas. One critic calls it ‘bonkers’

From the moment Alma Stonestand heard about Biocybernaut’s 7-Day Alpha Brain Wave Training, she was skeptical.

CBC News: In early 2014, her 12-year-old daughter, Chyna Gallerneault, came home from class waving a brochure promoting the Prince Albert School Study (PASS). It presented a seemingly life-changing opportunity for an all-expenses-paid trip to Victoria, B.C., for what one of the promoters called “brain school.”

“They promised these kids a better world, a better life,” said Stonestand, noting it was an attractive prospect given that their Prince Albert, Sask., neighbourhood had a high crime rate and lots of poverty.

“Change your brain waves; change your life!” the PASS brochure promised.

Biocybernaut Institute, the Sedona, Ariz.-based company behind the study, presented a series of claims it said were backed by scientific research. They included:

  • A 50 per cent increase in creativity.
  • An 11.7 increase in IQ.
  • More happiness and joy.
  • Relief from stress and anxiety. 
  • Healing of traumas.

That last point caught Stonestand’s attention, given her background.

“Both me and my daughter’s dad were chronic alcoholics and drug addicts. We divorced when Chyna was a year and a half,” she said. “I quit the life and I quit the drugs … and I raised the girls. And I always believed in therapy and I believed in healing.”

A decade ago, Alma Stonestand, left, and her daughter Chyna Gallerneault, right, took part in a brain training program offered through a public school in Prince Albert, Sask. (Don Somers/CBC)

For years, she had encouraged her four daughters to do the same. And now here was her 12-year-old, begging for brain school.

“They made it sound like it was gonna be, like, an enjoyable vacation where we go learn to get healthier,” said Stonestand, who’s from the James Smith Cree Nation. “I was like, ‘What is the catch? There’s a catch in here somewhere.'”

Yet Stonestand had a hard time telling her daughter no.

“I was so excited and I kept bugging her until she would agree to go,” said Gallerneault, now 23.

They had no idea what they were getting into. They would later discover that brain school involved having electrodes glued to their heads while they sat in pitch-black chambers for hours each day.

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‘Let’s see what happens’

All of it was the brainchild of 79-year-old American psychologist Dr. James Hardt, whose neurofeedback program has been endorsed by self-help guru Tony Robbins and featured on CNN’s Larry King Live. Hardt says brain school can make participants smarter and happier. He says it can also allow them to levitate, walk on water and visit angels.

In 2009, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, visited Biocybernaut as part of a segment for the program Larry King Live. (CNN)

The study focused on four schools in Prince Albert with high populations of Indigenous students. According to Hardt, 60 children aged 12 to 15 participated, along with one parent or guardian each.

Writing in the Advances Journal in the spring of 2013, just as the Prince Albert study was being proposed, Hardt said “the schools up there have up to 85 per cent Aboriginal students and many teachers are Aboriginal so it would be a really good case study; a lot of drugs, a lot of absenteeism.”

He told CBC his work in Canada has led him to believe that many Indigenous people have suffered “more profound post-traumatic stress disorder than returning war veterans.” 

Hardt said the Prince Albert School study was focused on addressing trauma and improving lives through “what a scientist would call exploratory research: we have a novel group, we have a powerful technology. Let’s see what happens.”

The project was supported by the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division, which oversees public schools in Prince Albert, after the study received ethics approval from the University of Regina. 

For Ian Mosby, a medical historian from Toronto Metropolitan University with expertise in Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people through clinical research, that approval was “shocking.”

“The entire project was very weird,” said Mosby. “The roadblocks were not put in place — the basic safety roadblocks.”

He said that’s especially surprising given the study was largely focused on Indigenous kids, “who have already in the past been exploited through medical experimentation and whose communities are regularly exploited economically and politically.”

“To expose a child to that process is abuse, in my eyes,” said Amanda Lavallee, an assistant professor of social work from the University of Victoria who went through the Biocybernaut training herself.

“All I can think of is … how did this get approved?”

Earlier this year, CBC met up with Amanda Lavallee at Biocybernaut’s former facility in Victoria. (CBC)
Intensive brainwave training

In early 2013, Biocybernaut was approached by a Prince Albert teacher who had recently taken its training through the company’s Canadian Aboriginal Scholarship Program. Hardt said she found it so helpful that she asked if the program could be offered in her school division, because of the “desperate need of the students and teachers.”

According to Hardt, that $6-million scholarship program was funded by Alberta billionaire and philanthropist Allan Markin, a former oil executive and part-owner of the Calgary Flames.

Hardt asked Markin if he would also be willing to fund the Prince Albert study. In an email to CBC from his lawyer, Markin confirmed that he agreed to pay for all costs — flights, food, lodging and the fee for the week-long Biocybernaut program. Hardt told CBC the fee was $15,000 a week per participant.

This still is from a documentary on YouTube called Muscle and Mind, in which Dr. James Hardt demonstrates his neurofeedback technology while travelling in the back of a truck. (AgingWell Arizona/YouTube)

According to his lawyer, Markin took Biocybernaut’s training in the past and found it “to be very beneficial for his memory, relaxation and cognitive analysis — rather like successful meditation.”

Markin funded the program through his non-profit Pure North S’Energy Foundation. Pure North also provided some study participants with its nutritional program and “regular urine and/or blood tests to ensure safe supplementation levels,” according to his lawyer.

    For years, Pure North, which is no longer operational, provided free vitamins and nutritional supplements to a range of groups, from seniors to homeless people to those struggling with addictions. That program had been heavily criticized by members of the scientific community. Markin maintains those criticisms are misplaced.

    While Markin agreed to fund the Biocybernaut study, his lawyer pointed out to CBC that Pure North was “never involved in the direct supervision of Biocybernaut’s work.”

    According to the brochure promoting the Prince Albert School Study, the aim of the project was to test the benefits of Markin’s vitamins and supplements and Hardt’s patented seven-day Biocybernaut training program — his take on the science of neurofeedback.

    Neurofeedback is a technology that enables you to hear or view your own brainwaves in real time. Practitioners like Hardt say it can help people detect and fix faulty thought patterns. Hardt’s innovation is to do an intense amount of training in a brief burst of time — just one week. He says it provides the equivalent of 21 to 40 years of zen meditation.

    “You don’t do an hour a day, three times a week, if you’re gonna really make transformational kinds of changes. It has to be profound — mass practice — long days, consecutive days, like we do at Biocybernaut,” Hardt explained in a 2021 interview on the relationships podcast Chatting with Candice.

    When CBC toured his Sedona facility earlier this year, Hardt explained that the basic concept is quite simple.

    “Change your brainwaves, change your identity. Change your identity, change your reality,” he said.

    Dark chambers and ‘scary trumpets’

    In the spring of 2014, Alma Stonestand and her daughter Chyna Gallerneault boarded a plane for Victoria, B.C., the home of Biocybernaut’s Canadian centre.

    Their first morning began with a shock, when they and another pair — a grandmother and granddaughter — were ushered into a room where Biocybernaut staff began attaching electrodes to their heads.

    They were then each placed, alone, in a small, dark room Hardt calls a chamber. They began listening to sounds, a strange sort of music, that Biocybernaut staff told them was being made by their brainwaves. Technicians were in a separate control room, observing them through video monitors.

    “In a dark room for more than half the day, listening to scary trumpets,” said Gallerneault. “I’m thinking, oh my god, this place is really weird.”

    Though Stonestand had signed a consent form, she said it didn’t mention electrodes, dark rooms or strange sounds.

    Alma Stonestand said she had no idea electrodes would be placed on her head until she arrived at Biocybernaut’s Victoria, B.C., facility. (Submitted by Alma Stonestand)

    “They never said anything about that before we left. Never. We did not know about that until just when it started happening to us,” said Stonestand. “And by that point, we couldn’t turn around.”

    Gallerneault said the grandmother in the group ended up having “a panic attack from claustrophobia from being in the room … I seen her have that panic attack, and then that put that fear in me.”

    The study also included group discussions, during which participants lay on beds while a Biocybernaut employee asked each of them to talk about some of the most traumatic moments of their lives. They were told brain training could help them overcome the trauma by enabling them to forgive those who harmed them and reinterpreting the painful events in a more positive light.

    As an example, Hardt told the story of an unnamed Indigenous professor from First Nations University who took the training.

    “She burst into tears,” Hardt said. She told him, “I just realized I’m going to have to rewrite all my courses” because “I’ve been teaching students that they are victims. What I realize is, we’re not victims.”

    In 2014, Amanda Lavallee, a Métis woman and PhD student in Saskatchewan, was asked by Biocybernaut to join the Prince Albert School Study research team. Before deciding, she took the training to see what it was all about.

    Lavallee, who grew up surrounded by alcoholism, violence and neglect, said she found the group discussions “completely triggering, painful, awkward.” She struggled to go “through this process with strangers, being recorded and then having to lay on a bed and regurgitate all that pain over again and then come up with an alternative, better memory of those situations.”

    “I would call my husband every evening and go, ‘Oh my god, this is f—ked up.”

    At the time, Lavallee was 38 and had completed years of university education and counselling.

    “For individuals that may not have the experience or background that I do, I can’t imagine the trauma that they went through, to even retraumatize themselves to think of painful memories,” she said.

    Care bears, angels and levitation

    Gallerneault said things took an even stranger turn when she asked one of the researchers what they were trying to accomplish.

    She said she was told the researchers believed she had special brainwaves that could give her the ability to alter the universe with her mind.

    “She said, ‘Imagine you’re a Care Bear, and how the magic comes out of their stomach, and imagine that’s what you’re doing,’” Gallerneault recalled being told. She said she was also told Biocybernaut was trying to create “a team of superheroes” who “can change the course of natural disasters.”

    Biocybernaut’s Victoria facility, seen here, is now a retreat centre. (CBC)

    CBC asked Hardt about this conversation, and while he wasn’t present when it happened, he did confirm his belief that people can alter the world with their minds. In his 2007 book The Art of Smart Thinking, Hardt claims some people can harness their delta brainwaves to “actually influence physical reality with their minds.” He likens it to the Force in the Star Wars movies.

    In a documentary about his work on YouTube, Hardt said, “with the right brainwaves, you can do anything. Levitate. Walk on water. Walk on fire.”

    He told CBC that sometimes angels appear in his sessions. He told one story about a professional football player.

    “He was terrified, because three angels showed up in the chamber and went, ‘You haven’t been living a very good life,” said Hardt.

    The side-effects of neurofeedback

    CBC asked Hardt if there can be side-effects from neurofeedback.

    “I know of none when it is administered in the way that we administer it,” he said.

    However, Ainat Rogel, a neurofeedback practitioner based in Boston, said side-effects like anxiety, depression or disassociation are possible, though they’re often transient and mild.

    “Neurofeedback is a strong tool. It’s a strong treatment modality and it does change the brain,” she said. “We gear for improvement, but it can cause adverse reactions.”

    Rogel, who is on the advisory board of the International Society for Neuroregulation and Research, said when done properly and used for specific conditions like ADHD or PTSD in combination with other therapy, neurofeedback can be effective.

    Ainat Rogel is a neurofeedback practitioner and an advisory board member of the International Society for Neuroregulation and Research. (CBC)

    But she said there are several things about Hardt’s methodology that concern her.

    While Hardt’s neurofeedback sessions run hours a day, Rogel said her 2015 study shows that children can only handle it for a few minutes.

    “We started with 30 minutes and we saw that it was too long, and we started shortening the sessions all the way to six to 10 minutes,” she said. “And the learning curve and the impact of the neurofeedback was much stronger, including much less adverse reactions.”

    Rogel also points out that practitioners should be in the room during the sessions, especially when working with children.

    “If you do a protocol that might target trauma, memories can come up. And then what would happen to the child when memories are coming up to them and they’re all by themselves?” she said.

    Rogel said it’s a question of whether “it is humane or not to keep a child all by themselves with this schedule … For me, it’s not acceptable.”

    Tanya Morosoli, president of the International Society for Neuroregulation and Research, agreed with Rogel’s concerns, saying she couldn’t imagine a university review board approving such a study.

    Morosoli, who’s based in Switzerland, says key aspects of Hardt’s methodology, like the long training sessions and subjects alone in dark rooms, haven’t been studied on adults, much less children.

    “It really seems to me that’s really unethical and irresponsible, because we have no idea of what such a training can do to the brain, because there is no research with such conditions,” said Morosoli. She said before such a project was launched, each element should be researched separately, and only after a rigorous ethics review.

    A technician at Biocybernaut’s headquarters in Sedona, Ariz., places electrodes on the heads of clients in order to read their brainwaves. (Don Somers/CBC)

    Hardt says it’s laughable to suggest that neurofeedback can accomplish anything in just a few minutes, as Rogel suggests.

    He said he did make modifications to the protocol for the sake of the children, limiting the training to just a couple of hours a day. Some study participants confirmed that duration while others told CBC they were in the chambers for much longer.

    Furthermore, Hardt said that while Biocybernaut administers neurofeedback without a practitioner in the room, his staff are carefully monitoring participants by video. 

    Robert Thibault, an independent research scientist who has been studying neurofeedback for years, says the most reliable research has concluded any benefits from neurofeedback are due to placebo effects.

    In research he published while at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Bristol in the U.K., he reviewed thousands of neurofeedback studies, finding that only 11 of them met the gold standard of research: double-blind placebo-controlled trials.

    In those studies, some participants were watching their brainwaves in real time while others were watching a recording of the brainwaves of someone else — essentially fake brainwaves. Thibault said in all but one of those studies, the people watching fake brainwaves improved at the same rate as those watching their own brainwaves in real time.

    “People might be getting better from neurofeedback, but that improvement isn’t because they’re watching their own brain activity,” said Thibault.

    He said the improvement is instead likely attributable to the “whole healing environment,” which includes a caring clinician and an intensive focus on trying to improve.

    ‘We had no choice but to stay’

    By Day 3 of brain school, Gallerneault decided she’d had enough and wanted to go home. Her mom says she felt the same way, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to be possible.

    “We were poor. We were given a free trip,” Stonestand said. “We had no choice but to stay, because we had no way back.”

    Once the week was over and they arrived back in Prince Albert, reality kicked in for Gallerneault and the classmates who took part.

    “They had hopes the world was gonna change around them,” said Stonestand. “But the world still sucked.”

    Stonestand said she has often wondered “if that whole study made it worse for us and made it harder on us to get through our tough times.”

    “I got six people in mind. We all digressed after that,” she said. Stonestand said after the program, she struggled with anxiety and depression, while her daughter was suicidal, although Stonestand added, “I don’t know if it was because of the program.”

    Latisha Laughlin was one of the other children who attended brain school. She said after the program, she was no longer the happy, talkative 12-year-old she once was.

    “I just started getting anxiety attacks and I just felt more sad,” said Laughlin, who’s now 20. “I feel far from the world … Like, I’ll just completely disconnect.” She also doesn’t know if the brain school training caused or contributed to this.

    In an email, CBC asked Hardt for his response to the concerns raised by Stonestand and Laughlin. He didn’t reply.

    School division support hinged on ethics approval

    After her brain training experience in Victoria, Amanda Lavallee decided she would not join the PASS research team.

    “I didn’t want to be part of that project, because I thought it was whacked,” she said. “It was bonkers.”

    Lavallee, who is now an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Victoria and regularly makes research proposals that have to be evaluated by a research ethics board (REB), said university REBs are usually very cautious and rigorous in their review.

    She was baffled to learn that the ethics board at the University of Regina gave this study the thumbs-up. “I don’t know how that got approved.”

    According to CBC’s investigation, a Biocybernaut employee first proposed the brain school study to the director of education for Prince Albert public schools in early 2013. The researchers wanted the school division’s help in recruiting students.

    Documents obtained through freedom of information show that then-director of education Robert Bratvold resisted. “Our practice is to support research studies … only after ethics approval,” he wrote on May 15, 2013.

    In August of that year, the principal investigators for the Prince Albert School Study filed an application to the University of Regina’s Behavioural Research Ethics Board. It approved the study in November 2013. 

    As a result of that approval, the Prince Albert school division said the study could go ahead, and researchers began recruiting students in early 2014.

    ‘A serious mistake was made’

    Ian Mosby, the medical historian, is baffled by the U of R’s decision.

    “Clearly, a serious mistake was made,” he said.  

    Through a freedom of information request, CBC obtained a copy of the study’s ethics application and provided it to Mosby. He said something peculiar jumped out at him. There was nothing in the application about electrodes being attached to people’s heads or subjects being placed alone in dark rooms for hours a day. The document also didn’t mention the training would involve detailed discussion of trauma.

    “One thing that is missing from the REB application is an actual description of what the research process is. That is totally unacceptable,” said Mosby, noting that such a description is “actually at the heart of the experiment.”

    Ian Mosby is a medical historian who teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University. (CBC)

    He said while the application does contain a consent form study participants were required to sign, it’s inadequate because it says almost nothing about what will happen in the Biocybernaut sessions.

    “You can’t have informed consent without information,” said Mosby. “The people who are subjected to this research didn’t know what they were getting into.”

    Documents obtained through freedom of information show that in October 2014, Saskatchewan’s then-deputy minister of education, Dan Florizone, discovered the existence of this study and immediately requested all documentation associated with it, including the full protocol detailing the study’s methodology.  

    He soon discovered such a document didn’t exist — because, he was told, it wasn’t required by the University of Regina’s ethics board.

    Florizone consulted a doctor with expertise in medical ethics, who told him in an email that “it’s highly unusual for a study to proceed without such details clearly laid out.” Acting on the advice of that doctor — whose name is redacted in the documents — Florizone directed the school division on Nov. 21, 2014, to withdraw from the study.

    U of R didn’t review ethics of brain school

    The University of Regina refused CBC’s request for an interview.

    CBC asked Christopher Yost, the current vice-president of research at the University of Regina, by email why the institution’s research ethics board approved the study. 

    Yost, who noted he wasn’t in this role at the time, said the REB was “narrowly focused” on the “behavioural aspects of the study,” meaning “the U of R’s role in the development and delivery of questionnaires and interviews and analysis of the resulting qualitative data.” 

    He added that the university’s REB did not review “the clinical practices of [Biocybernaut].” In other words, the university didn’t examine the rest of the study — like, for example, the brain school part.

    The study’s ethics application points out that no university prior to the U of R examined the ethics of the project.

    Stephen Hoption Cann, a research ethics expert in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, says the obvious conclusion is that no one reviewed the ethics of this study on vulnerable Indigenous children.

    Stephen Hoption Cann is a research ethics expert in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia. (CBC)

    He says that’s a “major concern.”

    “You’re still participating in analysis of the data, even though no other board has approved the study itself?” he said. “That’s pretty surprising.”  

    Hoption Cann said the U of R had an obligation to confirm that the ethics of this entire project had been reviewed, even if its role was relatively minor.

    “You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re just looking at this small part.’ You need to know what that part comes from and make sure that that’s been done ethically,” Hoption Cann said. “Obviously, you can’t take data or can’t take specimens where you don’t know whether that was collected in an ethical manner or whether the patients provided appropriate consent.”

    Brain training study didn’t require ethical review: Hardt

    In an interview with CBC, James Hardt freely acknowledged the study was not subjected to ethical review. He claimed that process was unnecessary because the study was done by a private company.

    An ethics review “would likely only be required if the study was going to operate under university auspices,” he said. “It wasn’t done through a university. It was done through Biocybernaut.”

    Hoption Cann said Hardt is “certainly misinformed.”

    “Private companies can’t just do unapproved research. They definitely need ethics board approval,” he said. 

    According to an email from Health Canada, “all clinical trials must have Research Ethics Board approval.” It added, “there are no exceptions for private companies.”   

    Hoption Cann said because Hardt makes health claims about his neurofeedback technology, the researchers should have consulted Health Canada.

    After Hardt’s interview with CBC earlier this year, he started to change his story about the nature of the Prince Albert School Study. In a puzzling text message in February, he told CBC it wasn’t correct to refer to the project as a “study.”

    “So from the beginning, it was a scholarship program and not designed to research or study anything,” he wrote. 

    A few weeks later, he changed his story again, acknowledging it was a study and claiming it had received university ethics approval. 

    By email, CBC asked Allan Markin, the billionaire who funded the study, about the concerns raised in this story. 

    He said that while his organization did not oversee the Biocybernaut research, he was told the study had undergone a thorough ethical review and the researchers had taken measures to ensure its safety and efficacy. He also said that he has not been made aware of any problems with the study. 

    As for the University of Regina, when CBC first reached out, the school declined to answer many questions because of confidentiality rules. Instead, it defended its role in the study. But after CBC outlined everything its investigation had uncovered, the university acknowledged something might have gone wrong.  

    The University of Regina’s research ethics board only reviewed a small portion of the proposed Prince Albert School Study. (

    In an email, vice-president Yost told CBC “we are sorry for any role the U of R may have had in causing suffering or harm to children, parents or the Prince Albert School community in relation to this study.” 

    He added that since this study was approved in 2013, the university has improved its review processes.

    “Had the same proposal been brought forward today, with our current policies and processes in place, the review process would be more robust, particularly around the data collection methods of the private company,” said Yost.

    Carrie Bourassa’s role

    Amanda Lavallee now says she feels “foolish” for having even considered joining the PASS research team. She said it seemed attractive early on because Carrie Bourassa, a friend and mentor, was the study’s principal investigator, along with James Hardt.

    A decade ago, Bourassa was a professor at First Nations University. She was considered to be a leading Indigenous scholar and a rising star in academia.

    In 2013, she partnered with Hardt to submit the ethics application to the University of Regina. The U of R reviews all ethics applications for First Nations University because it is a federated college of the U of R.  

    “If you’re an Indigenous person, why would you think it would be OK to do research like this?” Lavallee said.  

    In 2017, shortly after the study concluded, Bourassa was appointed the scientific director of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which funds much of the Indigenous health research in the country.

    In 2021, a CBC investigation found no evidence to support Bourassa’s claims to Indigenous ancestry. She was immediately suspended from her role at CIHR and was dismissed weeks after the story broke.

    In a 2019 TEDx Talk in Saskatoon, Carrie Bourassa claimed publicly that she is Métis and Anishinaabe and has suffered the effects of racism. (TEDx Talks/YouTube)

    Lavallee worries that the University of Regina may have given the brain school study less scrutiny because it believed the project was being led by an Indigenous researcher.

    “There’s this contention sometimes of, ‘Oh, this is Indigenous research. Let’s just approve it because we don’t want to challenge it, because we don’t want to be called a racist if we challenge it,’” said Lavallee.

    A November 2014 government briefing note CBC obtained indicates First Nations University “was not aware of the ethics approvals [for the study] having gone forward under their auspices.”

    After learning about the project, First Nations University officials told Bourassa “to remove FNU’s name from any association with this work.”

    Documents show that near the end of 2014, Bourassa removed herself from the study, saying she was too busy and that “this particular project is not the best fit for me.” Her 2020 CV makes no mention of the project.

    CBC asked Bourassa for an interview about her role in the study, but she has not replied.

    After Bourassa left, the study continued for more than a year. The U of R appointed one of its own senior Indigenous researchers to continue examining the “qualitative aspects” of the study until early 2016. Nothing was ever published.  

    Alma Stonestand said she was hesitant when CBC first reached out for an interview, because there were so many powerful people involved in the study. But she said she now hopes to get some answers and accountability.

    “They take advantage of these kids’ minds to use them for their own study, to use them for their own purposes, with empty promises of things that they couldn’t give them,” said Stonestand.  

    “That was offensive that they came and played with all these kids’ minds.”

    With files from Marnie Luke

    Top video: CBC | Editing: Andre Mayer

    About the Author

    Geoff Leo

    Contact Geoff Leo at

    Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001. Email Geoff at