Training the brain for As

Publication: Hamilton Spectator
Published: April 26th, 2008
By: Erika Engel

The jury is still out on cognitive-training software, but one local student says it helped her stay ahead of her class.

Samantha McCowell is bursting to talk about how her life changed after a computer game helped her out of a frustrating rut.

The 10-year-old Hamilton girl’s brown eyes grow wider with each sentence, and her dark hair bounces around her animated face. She talks about her A in Grade 5 science class at Adelaide Hoodless Elementary, and her best ever report card — As and Bs in every subject.

A year ago, Samantha had a D in science. Her report cards were littered with Ds and Cs. The tutoring didn’t help. She just didn’t get school work. Any of it.

It wasn’t a lack of will or effort.

“I kept telling myself, ‘Try harder, try harder,’” but it didn’t help, she said, dramatically throwing her pink-sleeved arms up in seeming surrender.

It wasn’t until Samantha was coached by a psychologist through a brain-training computer program called Cogmed that her endless hours of agonizing over homework came to a welcome end.

Now, she says, “I am able to pay attention. I am able to get ahead of the class … It’s like I passed a video game, like I finally passed a level.”

Cogmed is a new product in the emerging brain-fitness industry whose worth more than doubled last year to reach $225 million in the U.S. alone, according to SharpBrains, a cognitive research and consulting firm.

Samantha used the program for half an hour five days a week for five weeks. For her, the brain-training program was less like education and more like recreation.

“When I was done, I thought, ‘Wait, was I learning or was I just playing a video game?’” she said.

In fact, the program combines video-game technology with new research into cognitive training to progressively improve an individual’s short-term memory.

In early 2006, Samantha’s pediatrician, Dr. Dan Marshall, diagnosed her with attention deficit disorder. ADD is characterized by the inability to control behaviour due to difficulty in processing brain stimulation, according to MedicineNet.com.

Samantha started taking the stimulant Adderall, an alternative form of Ritalin, in the fall of 2006. Aside from almost eliminating her appetite, it made no difference in her ability to concentrate. Her parents, Paul and Janice, put her in Sylvan tutoring classes, but that didn’t help either.

In September 2007, Janice read an article in The Hamilton Spectator about the Cogmed program. The Boston Globe article featured a nine-year-old Massachusetts girl with a working-memory problem that prevented her from understanding her school work. When she used Cogmed, her comprehension difficulty was solved.

The article described symptoms that were similar to Samantha’s, said her mother. And more importantly, it presented the family with a fresh option.

Samantha started the Cogmed program last fall, and her parents say the turnaround is unbelievable.

“She explains herself very articulately,” said Janice. “Normally she would be all over the place.”

The program cost them $1,700, a fee not covered by OHIP or eligible for tax deductions. But they say it’s worth it.

“It’s the best money we ever spent,” said Janice.

Working or short-term memory is necessary for such basic tasks as remembering instructions, solving problems, controlling impulses and focusing attention. Working-memory problems affect the brain’s ability to store and manage information on a short-term basis, according to the Cogmed website. These problems are most common in adults and children with ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

And some individuals suffering from working-memory deficiencies may never be diagnosed as such if their symptoms are mild, according to Stephen Barker, the Ancaster psychologist who coached Samantha through the Cogmed program.

For example, habitually forgetting phone numbers, instructions and conversations minutes after they are heard or read may indicate working memory problems.

The Cogmed software program was created by neuroscientist Dr. Torkel Klingberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 2001. Since then, about 2,500 individuals, mainly in Europe and some in North America, have completed the program with about 80 per cent experiencing improved working memory, according to company reports.

The program, owned by Karolinska, was released in North America only last year. Since then, six physicians and psychologists in Canada have been licensed to coach patients through the program (see website cogmed.com). The closest licensee, Barker, has offices in Oakville as well as Ancaster.

The program’s brain-stimulating exercises are designed to train the visual-spatial and verbal working memory while they measure the progress of the patient. The interactive nature of the program allows it to progressively adjust the level of difficulty.

“This is cognitive weightlifting, with a very qualified personal trainer,” said Jonas Jendi, president and CEO of Cogmed’s Chicago head office.

Patients are coached by phone or Internet, so the program can be completed from home. Barker coached Samantha through the program by phone.

But Cogmed is not a miracle solution, according to Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of California-based SharpBrains.

Most of the research published on the program was conducted and reported by companies connected to the program (see the websites sharpbrains.com and cogmed.com).

Some independent research has begun, but it is too early to know the results of those tests, said Fernandez.

That’s why Barker said he tries to make parents aware of the software’s possible benefits and limitations. He follows up with his patients six months after they complete the program to make sure they are still benefiting from the training.

Still, he added, much is unknown about the software’s lasting effects because the program is so new.

“It doesn’t solve all the problems,” Barker said.

Fernandez agrees with this caution, adding that the Cogmed software has only been tested on small groups of people. Even Cogmed’s own reports are careful not to claim sweeping success.

Cogmed’s Jendi said there are about five other brain-fitness programs available in North America. Nintendo’s BrainAge is the most popular in the industry right now, according to Jendi, though it does not make any serious claims toward health benefits.

Barker, himself, reports a generally high success rate in the 20 patients he has coached so far.

“About 80 per cent have shown some benefit,” he said.

The Karolinska Institute recently developed an adult version of Cogmed. Early results indicate that patients are experiencing clearer focus, better rationality and improved thought organization, according to the Institute’s own research.

“The more active you can make your brain, the better it will perform,” said Barker.

This new research and approach to memory and behavioural disorder treatment is thrilling for Barker.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It’s hard to say where it’s going to go. It’s not a flash in the pan. It’s going to take off.”

While the program’s results are promising so far, Cogmed’s Jendi admits, “I think the brain fitness industry has a lot left to prove.”

But the McCowells are already convinced.

“What a difference … it’s unbelievable,” said Paul McCowell about his daughter’s improved academic performance.

Even Samantha’s nine year-old brother, Jake, notices a change in his sister.

“She pays attention to me, and she’s less annoying,” he said. Samantha grins from her seat on the couch.

Last week was her first piano lesson, something her mom promised she could do when she was caught up on her school work.

Someday, Samantha wants to act or teach or be a dentist. The girl who couldn’t add now says there isn’t anything she can’t do.

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