The Promise of Brain Plasticity

teens in group

By Lynn Ayres, M.Ed. and Linda Narun, M.A., CCC-SLP

“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”

-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself

The brain has a “critical period” in infancy and early childhood in which the brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment.

For decades, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. During the 1990s, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains change well past the critical period, and throughout our lives.

Neuroscientists now believe that if we do activities that target memory, attention, and timing and processing for extended periods of time, it is likely that it will be beneficial for improving the brain’s capacities and make changes in the neuro map of a brain. Neural learning is the process in which neurons “fire” together and thus “wire” together, which results in structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to creating a neuron map.

The space allotted to a neural map evolves over time. When learning is taking place, a relatively larger space is allotted. Once a skill is established, the neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed and some map space is available for new learning.

Researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70’s who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014). A study at Cornell University demonstrated that students who used a Fast ForWord computer program achieved significant improvements in their language and reading.

Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself when we do activities that challenge areas of the brain such as memory, attention, time and processing opens the door to endless possibilities for improving our brains and its capacity to learn.

Neuroscientists who study brain plasticity have determined that there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be “built-in” so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our “noggin” in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low – exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (i.e. exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et al, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect – you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability-Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules – The relevant ‘skills’ must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (i.e., quai-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing – In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards – A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema,2010).

The Tarnow Center offers three programs which implement the key elements the neuroscientists found to make brain exercises effective. Merzenich, Paula Tallal, Torkel Klingberg etc, as well as other scientists have provided a strong research basis for these programs.

Fast ForWord

Language and reading mastery are among the most difficult challenges a child faces. When a achild listens, talks, or reads, he or she must use multiple brain areas.

But for some children, this process can be laborious and often lead to low self-esteem and years of academic struggle. While there is nothing that can replace the benefits of a supportive environment, neuroscience research has proven that if a child’s brain is ready to learn, he or she will learn.

Fast ForWord products develop the cognitive skills essential for learning and reading success. Fast ForWord software’s unique neuroscience products develop and strengthen the cognitive skills of:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Processing Rate
  • Sequencing

The strengthening of these skills results in improved critical language skills, which in turn lead to improved school performance particularly reading and listening.

A study at Cornell University demonstrated that students who used Fast ForWord programs achieved significant improvements in their language and reading.

Cogmed Training

Cogmed working Memory Training is an evidence-based program for helping children, adolescents, and adults sustainably improve attention by training their working memory. The program is based on strong scientific research, is delivered under the supervision of a Tarnow Center Clinician and can be done either in the convenience of the client’s home or at our center.

Cogmed is:

  • Computer-based training, using a Mac or PC.
  • The program adjusts complexity level for each exercise in real time, for maximized training effect.
  • 25 training sessions of 30-40 minutes each, done over 5 weeks.
  • Supported by a Cogmed Coach who leads the training, tracks results, and gives support and motivation.

Studies consistently show that most people with attention deficits have a working memory deficit. That holds true for attention problems due to ADHD, traumatic brain injury, normal aging, or general deficits from working memory overload; it is also true for milder concentration problems.

Research also shows that deficits in working memory are related to poor academic or professional performance. Conversely, strong working memory capacity is closely correlated with fluid intelligence.

Benefits for children and adults

Children – Research and clinical data show improved grades following Cogmed Training. Parents and teachers also report improved social skills, taking initiative, remembering instructions, and completing assignments more independently.

Adults – By training your working memory you will be better able to stay focused, ignore distractions, plan next steps, remember instructions, and start and finish tasks.

Interactive Metronome

IM is an assessment and treatment tool used by therapists and other professionals who work with pediatric and adult patients with neurological conditions that affect cognitive and motor functioning.

IM is an evidence-based, engaging therapeutic modality that improves cognitive and motor skills. The design of the program ensures that patients recognize progress as it is occurring, increasing their motivation toward therapy and their ultimate recovery. IM is used to improve:

  • Attention
  • Coordination
  • Language processing
  • Reading and math fluency
  • Control of impulsivity/aggression

There exists a growing body of literature describing the neural timing deficits in ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, Reading Disorders, Auditory Processing Disorder. By addressing timing in the brain with Interactive Metronome (IM) alongside functional therapy interventions you are not only addressing areas of ability that impact achievement and independence but also the heart of the problem, that of deficient neural timing within and between regions of the brain that are underlying many of the problems you are working on in therapy.

This summer, Lynn Ayres and Linda Narun will be offering these programs as well as interventions that will improve:

  • Organization
  • Time Management
  • Learning Strategies
  • Reading, Math, & Writing Therapy

These interventions can be integrated into ACT & SAT tutorials. Please call 713.621.9515 to setup up an appointment or email Linda Narun (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or Lynn Ayres (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) directly with your questions. See our website for more info as well at www.tarnowcenter.com.

© Tarnow Center for Self-Management 2015

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