What is Brain Training and Can It Work?

Brain Training: Is it helpful for Atypical Kids?  Kristy Lea was searching for a way to 13300490_shelp her 5-year-old son improve his ADHD, and  she wanted to reserve medication as a last resort.  At the recommendation of her son’s occupational therapist, she decided to try a cognitive training program. “It was another avenue to try to help my son with focus and attention that didn’t involve medication,” says Lea, of New South Wales, Australia.  She promised her son a Star Wars Lego set if he completed the 5-week course.

It’s an expensive investment, but when you’re a parent of a child with additional needs, you’re willing to try something to see if it works,” she says.

Parents of atypical children are often most willing to try alternative treatments in the hope that something, anything, will help.  In the case of brain training games, fancy research claims, well developed websites and parent testimonials all tend to give hope to parents who are looking for the magic transformation.

Computer-based cognitive training programs — or brain-training games —  aim to improve working memory. That’s the part of short-term memory that allows you to hold onto information while using it. It lets you remember a phone number just long enough to dial it, while pushing out the distractions that would make you forget the number. Weak working memory is supposedly linked to some learning disabilities, and it can also be a part of ADHD. (But working memory is not a magic bullet to fix children with attention or learning problems and sitting on the computer extra hours of the day to the tune of thousands of dollars over many weeks is not substantiated by the research.)  

Increasingly, therapists, school systems, and parents are hoping that brain-training games will help children with learning challenges. K-12 school systems accounted for $195 million of revenue for the digital brain health industry in 2013. The K-12 segment of the industry is expected to grow by 20% per year, reaching $600 million in revenue by 2020, according to a report by SharpBrains, an independent market research firm that monitors the brain fitness market. About 40 of the 200 companies that SharpBrains follows market software for kids with learning disabilities.

Mixed Reviews

Those who purchase these types of brain-training games — which can cost from a few hundred to more than a thousand dollars — hope that improving working memory will make their child’s learning disabilities less severe. That’s what the game makers promise, but reviews are mixed.

“If you look at the [scientific research], the results are kind of all over the place. Some studies say they’ve found something significant, while other studies say they didn’t find anything,” says Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD. He’s the director of the Center for the Developing Brain at the Child Mind Institute in New York.

Results may vary greatly in part because the success of the programs can depend on the individual child. Some children respond to “brain training” while other kids really need to play outside or get an educational therapist to help with specific subject mastery.  

“You want to be careful. I’d judge it specifically by the case,” Milham says. “The thing with ADHD is if you give [kids] a task they can’t do, you could really discourage the child. If you have the wrong child doing this, you can wind up with some opposition or frustration. This may be well-suited [to some] but not necessarily everyone.”

Age, personality differences, and even biological differences could impact how much a person benefits from working memory training.

A review of about 25 different experiments concluded that children ages 10 and younger can improve verbal working memory — for example, the ability to remember and follow a series of spoken directions — with these games more than children ages 11 to 18 can. This review included studies of Cogmed, CogniFit, and Jungle Memory, as well as a few other unnamed programs.

Several studies have shown that those with the weakest working memory can benefit the most from brain training. Critics of working memory training argue that the skills kids sharpen with the games don’t extend widely into other aspects of life.

“What they’re learning is how to be good at the video games,” says Rita Eichenstein, PhD. She’s a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in assessing children with special needs. “Perhaps it exercises some very specific part of the memory system, but the goal of child development is an integrated approach to the demands of life, not just to become a computer whiz.”

Some Brain Gains Reported

Studies do confirm smaller short-term benefits, though. The large review of about 25 different experiments says that “the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills.” Brain-training supporters say these gains should not be disregarded, as they may be transferred to academic skills.

‘Not a Magic Bullet’

Still, there’s not a consensus as to how long the improvements will last. And for all the studies that show benefits of these programs, there are others that show kids didn’t benefit much at all.

“While there might be some promise or potential, this just hasn’t been shown to a level of scientific rigor yet,” Milham says.

Some studies that show fewer benefits of brain training include children with multiple learning disabilities. Reputable brain training programs doesn’t recommend use of their product for children with multiple challenges, but that doesn’t mean that parents won’t insist on trying them.

Experts suggest that parents proceed with caution and manage their expectations.

“Learning disabilities are often lumped together when they advertise these programs, like, ‘We will cure dyslexia, ADHD, auditory processing.’ But you cannot capture all of these issues with one pill or computer program. There is no one single treatment that’s going to address all of those things,” Eichenstein says. Yet it’s common, she adds, for kids to have several learning challenges rather than just one.

Parents who want to try the games must motivate and closely watch the child, not just park him in front of the computer and expect him to complete the program.

“It was a tough few weeks on the program,” mother Kristy Lea says. But her son finished the course and earned his Star Wars Lego set.

“He was more able to maintain focus to read through an entire book and more interested in writing, and would choose to write notes now and then, which was something he hadn’t done previously,” Lea says.

But a little over a year later, “it’s very difficult to say if the changes were long lasting,” she says. 

To see the full article, go to: http://www.webmd.com/news/breaking-news/brain-training/20141211/brain-training-learning-disabilities

By Sonya Collins
WebMD Health News




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