A Gym to Train Your Brain
Kelly Lawman Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff
DECEMBER 01, 2014
Can you train your brain? Research findings say yes!
This is great news for those of us who can’t remember where we left our keys, worry about aging parents who forget important appointments, or wonder about the effects of a concussion on a teenager. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has opened the Brain Fit Club, which offers members personalized “workout” routines to support brain health and keep each member’s brain limber and active.
At the Brain Fit Club, a brain “workout” can include computerized cognitive training; transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, a form of non-invasive brain stimulation; coaching on good nutrition; education about sleep; gait and balance training; and exercises in meditation, tai chi, and gentle yoga.
“At BIDMC, we have nearly 40 years of experience in expertly diagnosing and treating disorders of cognition,” says Albert Galaburda, MD, Chief of Cognitive Neurology. “Through research here and elsewhere, we know that there’s a lot to be gained from pairing traditional treatments like medication with special kinds of exercises, and we’re very excited to offer this comprehensive approach to our patients.”
Bonnie Wong, PhD, is a clinical neuropsychologist at BIDMC who runs the Brain Fit Club. She admits that about eight to nine years ago, she herself was skeptical about the benefits and lasting effects of cognitive training programs.
“But the research is quite convincing,” she says.
Studies have shown that people may be able to delay or minimize symptoms of injury or diseases like dementia by keeping their brains “fit.”
Wong and her colleagues call the club “a gym for the mind.”
The concept behind the Brain Fit Club relies on the science of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change or adapt when presented with new experiences or obstacles. Until recently, it was believed that after the first few years of life, our brains stopped creating news cells and that the neural connections laid down in childhood were fixed for life. But in the past two decades, research has shown that the brain never stops producing new cells, that new connections are constantly made and that there is lifelong potential for development and adaptation.
“We know that a healthy brain is better able to cope with challenges that come with injury, disease and the natural aging process,” says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation. “Fundamentally, there are things we could all do better for better brain health, like making sure we get enough sleep, eating healthy, participating in heart-pumping exercise. And we also need to challenge our brain outside of its comfort zone — in an environment like the Brain Fit Club.”
Brain Fit Club members start with an evaluation by a neuropsychologist who assesses each person’s cognitive abilities.
“Based on that cognitive profile, we then create a targeted ‘workout,’” explains Wong. “Not only do we develop a program that’s tailored to that particular person’s needs, but we can also track their progress and adjust their program as time goes on.”
“In essence, it’s like a personal trainer for your brain who assesses you, follows you and challenges you,” says Pascual-Leone. “And that trainer pushes you to work hard in the hopes of achieving the best benefit for your brain.”
One important component of the Brain Fit Club is coaching — to ensure that members stay motivated.
“We want to help people understand that it’s not just about continuing to lift the same two-pound weight,” says Wong. “We want to make sure each person is working for the right amount of time at the right level and not falling back on what feels comfortable or routine.”
While the hope is that many of the exercises can eventually be done at home, Pascual-Leone says that the social aspects of going to a gym are often just as important as the actual training.
“Humans are social beings, our brains are responsive to both the number of social interactions that we have as well as our own belief of how supportive our social environment is,” he says. “These are very powerful mechanisms that are important factors for brain health and brain plasticity.”
Many Brain Fit Club members are already reporting benefits. They say they feel better and are able to function better.
“I have one patient who has told me she felt as though she was ‘back to where she was’ before she had her concussion,” says Wong. “She was having a lot of difficulty at work, finding the right words, organizing thoughts, and although she hasn’t been retested, she feels as though after going through a particular computerized training program, she’s back to her baseline.”
“We think the Brain Fit Club will be able to help a lot of people. As we move forward, we’ll be able to collect data and refine our programming to be able to help even more people with brain injury and cognitive deficits,” adds Pascual-Leone. “And even though we know we’re not going to, for example, prevent a disease like Alzheimer’s, we should hopefully be able to make it easier for the patients who are unfortunate enough to have the disease to have less symptoms of it and cope with it better.”
To learn more or make an appointment, go to bidmc.org/brainfitclub.