October 5, 2012
The Plain Dealer
Jodie Valade

Three times last season, Ben Watson knocked his head so hard that he had to come out of a football game.

By the next day, Watson said, he felt better. No headaches, no nausea, no emotional outbursts or unusual behavior. He was lucky, he knows.

But Watson also began to worry. With an increased emphasis in the NFL on the long-term effects of concussions, he wondered if the cumulative result of the hits on his head might lead to problems eventually.

The concern led to an Internet search, which led to Watson discovering a computer software package aimed at improving cognitive functions through memory and speed exercises, Watson said he already can tell a difference. His memory is better, his mind feels sharper.

And, he said, he remembers the “honey-do” lists supplied by his wife.

“I still forget it sometimes,” Watson said. “But when I’m in the mode of doing it [the software], I specifically remember things.”

””And I think, ‘Oh wow, I usually just glaze over that and don’t even remember things.’ But now I remember stuff.”

Outside medical assessment of this kind of software does not suggest that it works, but as Boston University neurologist Robert Stern said, “It can’t hurt.”

“Are there good data to support the use of [memory software] for post-concussion syndrome? No, there are not,” Stern said. “There are no good data to support its specific use in improving cognitive functioning.

“However, that said, are there any data to suggest it’s harmful? No. But it’s the kind of thing that just needs a whole lot more research.”

This kind of brain training might be an untapped means of treatment in concussion recovery, something that has not yet been scientifically researched enough to provide conclusive evidence. Or it might be just a bunch of memorization and reaction drills that improve only those specific functions. Time will tell.

The founder of the company that makes the Posit Science software Watson uses said he has anecdotal evidence that clients with traumatic brain injuries who have used the software have seen improvements in cognitive functions.

Henry Mahncke, Posit Science CEO, is optimistic that stories of recovery that he has heard from software users and physical evidence he has seen in the lab might mean a difference in treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

Like many types of cognitive software, Posit Science believes in the concept of “brain plasticity,” that the brain is not a fixed entity that never changes. If prodded and pushed in different directions, if forced to its limits, Mahncke said the brain will expand and improve functioning.

“When a brain gets trained in this specific way, you see information flow through the brain more quickly and accurately, you see neuron activity,” Mahncke said of lab results. “It’s as if the brain is working in a stronger and faster way.”

For the most part, Posit Science uses memorization and response-time drills that become more difficult as the user becomes more adept. In one exercise, the user is instructed to repeat a list of items. In another, the user must identify the difference between a whistle pitch within a specified time.

“It’s about keeping you tuned in until you specifically try to remember stuff,” Watson said. “Sometimes, something may be in one ear and out the other ear. But just like you can train yourself to play football, you can train yourself to remember details, to hear people’s speech, to hear certain sounds that are memory keys for you.”

It’s not unlike encouraging the aging population to do crossword puzzles to keep the mind sharp, Stern said. However, to achieve real cognitive improvement, people should do more than just crossword puzzles.

“It’s doing multiple new things,” Stern said. “So, for example, if you’ve always been a crossword-puzzle person, try something new like Sudoku. If you’re a reader, try reading a new genre of a book. If you used to play the violin, start playing again. Or pick up a new instrument.”

New, challenging experiences for the brain have been proven to create new pathways, Stern said. The only time that using cognitive software might be detrimental would be shortly after sustaining a concussion when the brain needs to recover and rest.

“The long and short of it is, if it doesn’t hurt, why not try it?” Stern said.

Said Watson: “I think as you grow and learn different things, you learn different ways to take care of your body holistically. Why not do things to take care of my brain? Why not do things to take care of my hamstring? Why not do things to help me nutritionally?

“I take care of my whole body. Not just the physical part, but the mental part, too.”