By Hansa Bhargava
WebMD Medical Editor
I see many patients with attention and learning problems. They may be due to ADHD or other causes such as learning disabilities, or brain injuries such as concussions. For any parent, it’s hard to understand why their seemingly bright child is having difficulty following directions. It’s just as hard knowing how to help. Parents often ask me: is there anything other than medication that can fix this?
That’s where brain training comes in.
I looked into brain training when my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD. Just like the families I had seen in the office, I struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis. And I wanted to find the right answer that would quickly fix my child.
Brain training centers are popping up all over the nation. It sounded intriguing and seemed to fit the bill. It uses computer programs to stimulate and enhance certain cognitive functions. Usually it requires regularly playing a “game” on a computer for a set number of minutes. These programs claim that they can affect working memory, the memory that keeps facts in your head until they can be manipulated. You use working memory to solve word problems or to summarize information you just read, for example. This could help improve academics and schoolwork. Some also claim to improve focus and even social skills.
At least on the surface, it seemed to be worth looking into.
As a pediatrician, I like to see solid research before I recommend a treatment. Although there are many brain training programs available, very few actually had research to back up their claims. One that did was Cogmed.
Cogmed claims to make a difference in working memory as well as in attention. It has a number of ongoing studies as well as published ones that showed improvement on working memory. The challenge with these type of programs seems to be whether these effects are long lasting and translate to improved academic performance. Just because a child can do a computerized program well doesn’t necessarily mean he can do fractions well. At least one study published in a peer-reviewed journal showed that Cogmed helped students who had problems with working memory improve their math scores.
There are other brain training programs such as Learning Rx and Academics Plus. Some of these also claim to help academic performance by improving memory, processing speed and attention. Many of these have no published studies to date in peer-reviewed journals backing up their specific program’s claims.
Based on the fact that Cogmed had some research, I decided to try it for my daughter. First, I did the training program. Cogmed required its trainers to be PhDs or MDs. While it seemed easy enough initially, the training was extremely detailed and took much longer than I anticipated.
Children use three different types of programs, geared to different ages and audiences. It is a true time commitment. Even the shortest 5-week program requires computer training for at least 5 days a week for 45 minutes, although recent research by Cogmed shows that 35 minutes may be enough. During that time, the child needs to be in a quiet room with no distractions and have a parent stay at their side so the child stays on task. The average cost is pretty hefty as well — about $ 900 to $ 1,100 for the session.
The good news is that my daughter was excited to try it. Her school was really supportive and excited as well. So, for the past few weeks, every day after school, she’s been going on the computer and playing what seems like games to her. Most of the time, they keep her engaged. The exercises are not easy and require concentration and effort from both of us.
Also, the time commitment is significant for an 8-year-old who already has a full plate with homework, music and tennis. We helped her stay motivated after a long day at school by putting a ‘reward’ system in place. Finally, I’ll admit that as a working mom, it’s been hard to fit it in my schedule. But if it makes a difference to her academics and her life, it will be well worth it.
While the jury remains out on whether brain training truly translates to long term academic gain, my daughter so far looks forward to her “video games.” And I think that they are making a difference at least right now — her scores on the games seem to be improving day to day, and she’s about halfway through the 5-week program.
I am hopeful that it will help her working memory and attention issues, and ultimately her schoolwork. I’ll update her progress after we finish the training and going forward.
For more on brain training, see WebMD’s Special Report: Can You Train A Better Brain?