Computer program helps improve memory of those with ADHD

Publication: The Wichita Eagle
Published:September 9th, 2008
By: Karen Shideler

Grace Burks aced her first algebra test this fall and keeps track of baby-sitting jobs by marking them on her calendar. The 15-year-old’s room is so organized that her mother put her to work organizing the rest of the house. That’s in stark contrast to a few months ago, when Grace struggled to get from her teacher’s desk to her own without forgetting what her teacher had told her. She and her mother, Angela Burks, credit the change to Cogmed, a computer program that trains working memory.

Working memory is the ability to use information — to remember why you went into the next room or what you just read, says Paul White, a Wichita psychologist. He and two psychologists in Overland Park are the only Kansans offering Cogmed. Many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD, have impaired working memory, and training it seems to improve ADHD symptoms, White says. He has had 15 to 20 students go through Cogmed training.

Trying but failing
Grace, a sophomore at Valley Center High School, was tested for ADHD when she was in second grade and has used four different ADHD medications. She continues to take one. Even with medication, nothing seemed to help. Teachers would tell Angela Burks that Grace was working hard and turning in assignments, but she would flunk every test. “I would listen at first, and then I just couldn’t remember it,” Grace says. She failed the test for her driving learner’s permit three times even though “I studied forever.” She started Cogmed training shortly after school ended.

The training is an interactive program done at home five days a week for five weeks. Each session takes 35 to 40 minutes. The student has a “coach” who sets up the system, monitors progress online and provides feedback.

Playing brain games
The training is similar to exercises on an Internet brain challenge site or in the Nintendo Brain Age games. The difference, says White, is that Cogmed is individualized — it gets tougher or easier depending on need. The adult version, which Grace used, is plain; the children’s version is more colorful and resembles other computer games.

White says studies show that 80 percent of those who complete Cogmed training show significant improvement of ADHD symptoms, as reported by parents and teachers. The effect lasts for a year for 80 percent of those who improve, he says, with a year being as far out as the change has been measured.

Cogmed was developed by Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish professor of cognitive neuroscience. His studies have been small; additional studies are under way. Cogmed and similar interventions have a place, says Russ Scheffer, a physician who heads the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita and who does research in child psychiatric treatment.

The ‘gold standard’
He cautions that medication remains the gold standard for ADHD treatment. But he says, “There does seem to be some additive benefit, of doing them together.” The problem, he says, is that there is no way to test which child will do well on medication alone and which will need something else — and what that something else should be. “What I tell parents is, try the medication, and then see what’s left.”

White agrees that medication is the best approach for ADHD but says parents often are looking for alternatives, especially ones that don’t involve medication. Cogmed is not covered by insurance, but Angela Burks says she considers the $1,500 cost a reasonable investment on a long-term basis. As for Grace, her thoughts on Cogmed’s effects are reflected in the big grin on her face when she talks about finally earning her learner’s permit.

About Cogmed
To see the types of exercises used in Cogmed, or to challenge working memory, visit http://add.about.com/od/researchstudies/a/workingmemory.htm

For more information about Cogmed, go to cogmed.com.

Paul White’s Web site is www.workingmemorysolutions.com and his phone number is 316-681-4428.

About ADHD
About 7 percent of children have symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to Russ Scheffer.

There are three subtypes of ADHD:
• Inattentive, which used to be called attention deficit disorder, or ADD. It’s the hardest to identify, because it’s
the one in which patients are seen as daydreamers. “They get distracted and their thoughts wander off, but
they’re not discipline problems,” Scheffer says.
• Hyperactive/impulsive. These are the “Energizer bunny” types. “They stand out,” Scheffer says.
• Combined, which is the most common.

Reach Karen Shideler at 316-268-6674 or kshideler@wichitaeagle.com.
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