Brain Training Aims to Help Kids With Learning Challenges


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Ah, the start of a new school year. Many students welcome the opportunity to make new friends and gain new skills, not to mention shop for school supplies and clothes. For kids with learning challenges, though, the start of school is fraught with fear and frustration.

Whether these children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, emotional issues or an undiagnosed challenge, their parents have one thing in common: The desire to find a fix.

For thousands of parents, that fix is “brain training.” The promise of brain training appeals to parents of children with learning challenges because it offers a cure rather than a Band-Aid. Such programs claim to address the cause of a student’s learning problems so comprehensively that he or she may no longer need conventional interventions such as tutoring, medication or therapy.

What is Brain Training?

Brain training is a relatively new phenomenon. The term generally refers to two types of approaches. The first features activities — primarily game-like and computer-based—designed to exercise the parts of the brain responsible for memory, attention and other processes important to school success. The second approach is called neurofeedback, a computer- and electro-encephalogram-based system focused on helping people change their own brainwaves to overcome emotional and cognitive challenges.

The past decade has seen the creation of an entire industry that encourages people to consider the brain a muscle that can — and should — be developed. It’s at least a $1.3 billion industry that, according to a December 2014 WebMD article, shows no signs of slowing down.

Brain training entrepreneurs and advocates note that tutoring and other traditional interventions don’t address the root cause of learning challenges: deficits in working memory, processing speed, auditory processing and other cognitive processes linked to learning and performance.

While some companies, including industry leader Lumosity, offer games and other exercises designed to appeal to all ages, most target parents of children who are struggling in school.

How It Helps

LearningRx’s center-based program of assessment and tailored, one-to-one training with a specialist appealed to Jennifer Huntington when her son, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mild autism, was in second grade. At the time, his processing speed — the rate at which the brain does tasks such as counting and problem-solving — was in the second percentile.

“Homework was a two-hour ordeal every night,” Huntington recalls. She heard about LearningRx and enrolled her son. Months later, his processing speed had increased to the 40th percentile.

Huntington and her husband were so impressed by their son’s results that they decided to buy the LearningRx Raleigh franchise in partnership with Erin Whitely, a former trainer for the company.

Learning Rx, which has more than 100 centers worldwide, uses a series of mental exercises to address weaknesses in one or more of the seven processes used in learning, Whitely says. The one-to-one, in-person approach enables students to get feedback and encouragement, both of which are crucial to the brain-training process, she notes. The company’s website and brochures are sprinkled with testimonials from satisfied parents and students.

As for more concrete evidence, a 2011-12 study that LearningRx conducted on its clients shows that, on average, students see improvements of 3.1 years of reading gains in six months and a 15-point increase in IQ.

Likewise, neurofeedback programs emphasize benefits that can help enhance academic performance, as well as career and sports mastery. These programs also claim to foster improvements in sleep, well-being and mood regulation. Many come with testimonials attesting to their ability to improve focus in children and adults with ADHD.

Benefits Beyond the Brain

Frederique Beaufils administers the NeurOptimal, a neurofeedback program at Orenstein Solutions, a psychology practice in Cary. She decided to become a certified trainer for NeurOptimal after she experienced the program as a patient and saw her post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms recede.

Beaufils works with patients of all ages who suffer from a variety of issues ranging from stress and sleep disorders to ADHD and anxiety.

“Neurofeedback involves brainwave regulation, which not only has an impact on neurological function but also digestive, cardiac and immunologic health as well,” Beaufils says. “Even though the training might involve one particular area of the brain based on the patient’s complaint, the result is often many benefits in many different areas.”

The client is connected to a computer and electro-encephalogram monitor for about 25 minutes, during which music or a movie is played. When the brain achieves an optimal — namely, a relaxed and well-regulated — state, the system sends it a signal in the form of a sound or pulse to encourage the person to “remember” that brain pattern. Some patients see results after just a few sessions, while others require many more. Improvements in focus and attention tend to take longer to realize, Beaufils notes, and may require as many as 30 treatments.

Cary mom Clare Kneis is very impressed with the NeurOptimal system. Her son, Jak, had 12 sessions with Beaufils after experiencing anxiety and shyness. The problem was so severe at school that Jak, now 8 and in the second grade, “lost his appetite in the lunchroom because it was so loud and intimidating for him,” Kneis says. Today, Jak is less anxious, finds it easier to participate in class and is no longer bothered by the cafeteria experience. Kneis, a nurse, was so impressed by neurofeedback training that she is now having sessions with Beaufils herself.

More Data Needed

Despite their tantalizing claims, the jury is still out on whether brain training programs translate into better academic performance or whether their benefits are limited to mastery of the specific game or exercise employed in the program, says Scott Kollins, a psychology professor at Duke University who also directs the Duke ADHD Program.

“We don’t use brain training in our clinic because the data isn’t there yet,” he says.

Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics nor the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — the country’s two leading professional organizations for pediatricians and child psychiatrists/psychologists — take a position on brain training, although both have published articles on various processes in their journals.

Although such programs can’t hurt and might possibly help, Kollins suggests that parents with limited resources allocate their spending on proven ADHD interventions, such as medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

One reason the medical establishment has yet to fully embrace brain training is the limitations of study design. Clinicians want to see evidence of a controlled or placebo-based study in order to accept a treatment or intervention. The gold standard of study design is the double-blind placebo, in which neither the researchers nor the trial subjects know who is getting the study material and who is getting the control. Few, if any, brain-training studies have been conducted using this method.

Why? For the games-based programs, “the challenge is coming up with a ‘placebo’ game that could be run alongside the actual program,” Kollins says. The amount of research and development in the burgeoning field is encouraging, he says. “I think that, in terms of effective programs that can be rigorously studied, we’ll be there in another 10 years.”

Some educators are also reluctant to endorse brain training.

“Although I believe research-based and validated programs can be a helpful tool for students diagnosed with working memory issues, especially when recommended and administered by a licensed psychologist, they are one of many strategies that might be worth considering,” says Beth Anderson, executive director of the Hill Center, a private school in Durham for children with learning challenges such as ADHD and learning disabilities. “But they’re not a magic bullet, nor will they be effective for all students.”

Suzanne M. Wood is Raleigh-based writer and mother of three.

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