Giving brains a workout

Publication: The Toronto Star
Published: June 26th, 2009
By: Andrea Gordon

Nessah Alli is lost in space. The 9-year-old Toronto student is entranced by asteroids spinning across her computer screen. She watches closely as four light up, one by one. Her task is to remember the sequence and then click on the asteroids in the correct order.

If she gets it right, the asteroids will explode with a boom through her headphones. Even if she’s wrong, she’ll still move on to another sequence.

Nessah is one of nine students in Grades 3 through 5 at Shoreham Public School in northwest Toronto who have spent up to 45 minutes every school day for five weeks doing exercises like this as part of the Cogmed Working Memory Training program. Developed in Sweden, it is aimed at improving memory and attention.

This spring at nearby Yorkwoods Public School, 21 students in Grades 2 through 5 began using the Fast ForWord software program. Yorkwoods is the first Ontario public school to offer Fast ForWord, a U.S. program that focuses on building reading skills through cognitive exercises that boost memory, attention, processing and sequencing skills. Both programs are based on the idea that the brain can be strengthened and changed throughout life – a concept known as neuroplasticity. This marks a groundbreaking shift in thinking about how to help students with learning disabilities, attention disorders and other problems that interfere with learning.

While neuroplasticity has been at the forefront of brain research over the past decade for victims of stroke or head injury, it is still new to education, where students have traditionally been taught to work around their disabilities rather than trying to tackle the root cause. But the issue is not without controversy and costs are considerably higher than for traditional remedial programs. In the case of Nessah Alli and the other Shoreham students who have taken the Cogmed program during the past two school years, funds were raised by Jewish Vocational Services, a non-profit provider of psychological services and training. But donor money has run out and Cogmed’s future at Shoreham is uncertain.

At Yorkwoods, principal Seymour Lofsky and special education teacher Rob Lines spent a year studying the evidence-based research on Fast ForWord and visited a Niagara Falls, N.Y., school that offers it. Lofsky says he was so convinced of its potential that he scrimped and reorganized to cover costs through the school’s budget.

Yorkwoods paid roughly $18,000 (U.S.) to outfit four workstations, which can serve an unlimited number of students from the school’s high-needs neighbourhood. “This is cutting edge. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve been involved in,” says Lines, who has been teaching for three decades. “I think so many kids will benefit.” Students are tested before and after taking the program. “They are all making progress and some kids have improved up to two grade levels in their reading,” Lofsky says. Cognitive exercise programs like Cogmed and Fast ForWord are designed so that students strain their brains, but not enough to become discouraged. The idea is to capitalize on the brain’s capacity to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, which improves a student’s ability to learn.

Fast ForWord and Cogmed are among four neuroplasticity-based programs being considered by the Toronto District School Board for the fall of 2010, says Karen Forbes, senior superintendent of special education. “We’ve always looked at best practices and innovative strategies and this (neuroplasticity) is just another,” she says. The board is also considering Wasdell SMaRts, a series of brain aerobics offered by an Ajax company, and Arrowsmith, a made-in-Canada program that the Toronto Catholic District School Board has used for 10 years.

Arrowsmith has made headlines recently amid controversy over whether the cash-strapped Catholic board, the program’s only public provider, will cut it next fall. A group of parents and trustees at the Toronto public board has been pushing that board to launch a pilot. Forbes says the TDSB will make recommendations by late fall after weighing the relative merits, costs, research and suitability of each. Several Ontario studies may help in assessing Cogmed’s merits. Starting this fall, Hospital for Sick Children researcher Rosemary Tannock will head a two-year project on the program. The big question is not just whether Cogmed can improve working memory, Tannock says, “but will it really improve academic outcomes?” Tannock’s study, funded by the province, will follow 120 children at Ontario’s demonstration schools for students with severe learning disabilities.

A separate Cogmed project will also be launched with students at University of Toronto. Jewish Vocational Services has put 100 people through the program and is tracking 20 learning-disabled students at York University that have used Cogmed as the result of a partnership with the school. The agency’s chief psychologist, Reena Kronitz, says Cogmed has created huge interest because working memory, which is the ability to hold information in the mind for a short time while applying it, affects all aspects of learning, from reading comprehension to math calculations and note-taking.

One Cogmed user, Kayzie Sutton, says her experience has given her a new confidence. Sutton, 30, was diagnosed with dyslexia and a learning disability related to working memory shortly after starting university. This year, the kinesiology student was part of the Cogmed program funded by Jewish Vocational Services. “Near the end I noticed I could remember phone numbers for the first time,” says Sutton. “I am sure my ability to remember patterns and sequencing has improved.”