Publication: Washington Parent
Published: January 2010
By: Karen Finucan Clarkson
Common sense dictates that if something sounds too good to be true, then it must be. But when it comes to the computerized training of a child’s brain to improve her working memory, early results are turning skeptics into believers.
The idea behind working memory training is to strengthen the parts of the brain that hold onto information long enough for a person to accomplish a specific goal. When working memory improves, so does fluid IQ, the ability to solve problems or adapt to situations as they occur. “It affects our ability to manipulate information and attend to information without being distracted,” says Michael Dougherty, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. It is not unusual for children with ADHD to have deficits in working memory.
“It’s not a miracle cure,” cautions Barbara Ingersoll, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who uses the computerized Cogmed Working Memory Training program in her Bethesda practice. “But the hardcore research data that we have on academic improvement supports gains in math and in reading comprehension. And the anecdotal evidence in terms of attention and behavior is compelling.”
At William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., & Associates, LLC in Silver Spring, Lisa Martin, Ph.D., reports similar observations with Cogmed. “With some kids who have social issues or PDD (pervasive developmental delay), we see changes in social skills, in their ability to maintain eye contact. It’s not empirically validated but clinically observed.”
Unlike medication, the results of which are temporary, working memory training makes permanent changes to the brain. “They’ve done studies with functional MRIs, and you can see different parts of the brain lighting up after brain training,” says Martin.
“These changes are not biochemically induced,” notes Dougherty, “they are happening at the structural level. Once changed, they will stay that way. It’s an effective and attractive intervention, particularly for parents reluctant to medicate.”
Minding the Meds
Most brain training programs do not hold themselves out as a substitute for ADHD medication, but mental health practitioners report instances where children are able to go off medication following the training. Training can be done with children, ages 4 to18, prior to starting, or while on medication.
Not all programs that claim to train the brain actually effect change at the structural level. Some merely exercise it. “Through practice, we can get better,” Dougherty says, “but it isn’t really changing anything. I would suggest that a lot of programs aren’t well informed by the underlying scientific principles.” Ingersoll recommends that parents ask for research that has been peer reviewed in respected journals instead of relying only on the program’s claims of effectiveness.
Not All Fun and Games
On the face of it, brain training may seem all fun and games—vivid graphics and sound entice children to shoot at asteroids, recall numbers in reverse order and remember patterns in cubes. But it’s serious business, agree mental health practitioners.
“It’s an intensive program,” says Martin, “five days a week for five weeks with lessons that last 30 to 35 minutes. There needs to be a commitment on the part of both the parent and child.” And Ingersoll agrees that the program should be five consecutive weeks in order to get the full benefit. She recommends that, while teens may be able to work on the program themselves, parents should supervise younger children.
At the start, children may find the program easy. As they progress, however, so does the level of difficulty. “It gets harder around week three or four,” says Martin, who along with Ingersoll recommends that parents include a reward for children who complete the program.
High-school students often do the program over the summer. “If they didn’t also have drama club and sports and piano lessons and karate and SAT tutoring, then they could handle it during the school year,” says Ingersoll. “You don’t want them to be under a lot of pressure while they’re doing this.”
Keeping in Touch
A few brain training programs provide support from a mental health practitioner. “I view their data online and call them once a week to talk it over with them,” say Ingersoll.“Every week you get a phone call,” says Martin. “We’ll talk about how the child’s doing. I’ll give feedback and answer questions.”
Cogmed is neither inexpensive nor 100 percent effective. While the majority of users—about 80 percent—experience cognitive improvement, some do not. Currently, there is no way to predict in advance who will benefit and who will not, say both Ingersoll and Martin. The program, which includes support, runs in the neighborhood of $2,000. While it is not covered by most insurance companies, many flexible medical spending accounts will allow reimbursement.
“There may come a time when these interventions can be viewed as medical interventions,” says Dougherty, who is doing research into whether brain training leads to long-term gains in academic performance. “There are some who think these strategies need to be regulated, that the FDA should have a role in regulating intervention strategies that are producing real changes in the brain.”
Dougherty, who is looking for additional funders for his research, sees brain training as a way to close the achievement gap between various demographic groups. “There’s striking data that drove me to this,” he says. “By kindergarten, there’s already a difference in math proficiency between those of high and low socioeconomic status and different ethnic groups . . . .This small gap is typically exacerbated in adolescence. By 16 or 17, they’re way behind. The state of science is to the point where we can develop smart systems for neurological training that will endow children with the skills to achieve and succeed when they become members of society.”
Brain training is not limited to children. Adults are using it to stem age-related cognitive decline. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently recommended a new brain-training safety program for senior drivers called DriveSharp. “There’s evidence that it can decrease accident rates through increased visual awareness,” says Dougherty.
When teens take to the road, optimized working memory is invaluable. It enables them to follow driving directions, rules and regulations. “What you have to hold in working memory to drive is astonishing,” says Ingersoll. She notes that some of those who have gone through working memory training feel they’re better drivers and others, who didn’t have the confidence to try driving, have gone on to get their licenses.
While working memory training is not entirely understood, scientists and researchers agree that its potential to improve lives—possibly in ways not currently imagined—is enormous. “The brain is the most complex organism in the world,” says Dougherty, “and while we may not fully understand it, it sure is powerful. We’re only just touching on the tip of the iceberg.”