August 31, 2008
The Ann Arbor News
Susan L. Oppat

At first, reception is great, but as you move around, you start losing a word here and there, then whole phrases, then, finally, the connection.

That’s how it is with your brain.

Gilbert Residence, a nonprofit senior care center in Ypsilanti, has become the first facility in Southeast Michigan to use a science-based computer program intended to help seniors rewire their brains, and tune back in to the world around them.

Unlike most mind-fitness software in an industry that raked in $225 million last year, Brain Fitness is based on medical studies that indicate that, as vision, hearing and fine motor skills worsen with age, people start getting garbled signals, which they eventually just tune out.

In addition, when people retire from work, most stop learning new skills, remembering names, figuring out how to make something work, and actively listening to the people around them.

All of that leads to a loss of what scientists call brain plasticity, its ability to change throughout life.

Five days a week, for eight weeks, four Gilbert residents have been donning headphones that come with the program. They spend an hour listening to prompts, clicking on answers. As their listening skills improve, the program ratchets up the difficulty level.

Some of the Gilbert seniors had computer skills before they started the program, and some didn’t. Computer skills aren’t necessary — users need only be able to point and click.

Once Gilbert CEO Mary Jo Gibbons researched Brain Fitness, she worked out a discounted license and training for it with the Center for Speech and Learning, the Michigan dealer for the program. She doesn’t charge residents more to use the program, because she considers it part of Gilbert’s wellness program, she said.

She got computers from the Washtenaw Community College computer-building class, and obtained wireless computer access for the whole building through Wireless Ypsilanti.

Four of the first five students have finished about two-thirds of the program, and the next round of students is already signed up, she said.

The fifth student loved the program so much that she finished it in four weeks, even though she was supposed to take eight weeks, to force her brain to “work out” over an extended period of time.

Elaine Seelhorst, 81, said she just couldn’t help herself. She plans to restart the program at a new, hard-earned, more difficult level.

She said she had trouble understanding consonants before she blasted through the program that she hopes “put neurons back where they belong” in her brain.

Now, she said, she’s able to concentrate and pay more attention to what’s going on around her. She said she can follow conversations better, even with people whose speech was previously too fast for her to catch.

She was skeptical of the program before she used it. She said she only tried it out of curiosity.

“But it’s fixing my brain,” she said.

Howard Brown’s daughter, Linda Eggan, feared she was sending her beloved, 92-year-old father to Gilbert to die this summer. He had just lost his wife of 64 years, and has Parkinson’s and end-stage heart disease. He was depressed and in hospice care.

After six weeks in Brain Fitness, she said, “he has made this miraculous comeback. He looks good; cognitively, he’s bright as a button. He doesn’t miss a trick.” He’s e-mailing, reads the newspaper for the stock reports, she said, and misses working on the program on the weekends.

“It’s really made him attentive, again, to all the details and events in life that interested him before. I’m thrilled,” Eggan said. “It warms my heart to see him happy.

Brown himself grinned from ear to ear when he said, “I’m a little sharper. I think I remember things better, and have more confidence in a crowd. I’m able to focus more.”

He can get frustrated when he’s working the program, he said, but that’s because the tremors in his hand from Parkinson’s sometimes click an answer that he knows is wrong, and he doesn’t like to get things wrong.

Next up for Gilbert, Gibbons said, is the planned purchase of a similar Posit Science program called InSight. Where Brain Fitness works with listening skills, InSight attempts to improve the quality and quantity of the information the brain absorbs from the eyes.

Brain Fitness

Controlled, randomized, double-blind studies of 524 people, ages 65-93, with similar baseline cognitive skills were conducted at the Mayo Clinic, the University of Southern California and Posit Science, using the Posit Science Brain Fitness program and conventional cognitive programs. The study indicated:

  • The Brain Fitness program may help seniors delay the onset of significant brain deficits for up to 10 years, or regain about 10 years of ability they’ve lost.
  • Users increased their information-processing speed an average of 131 percent, helping them keep up with the speed of speech and improve comprehension and memory.
  • About 90 percent of participants reached processing speeds typical of people under age 40.
  • Users gained an average of 10 years improvement in memory.
  • Users improved in clinical tests of memory, focus, and complex thinking, even though the testing tasks were not used in direct training in the program.
  • More than 75 percent of users reported benefits in their daily lives, including remembering a shopping list without writing it down, hearing conversations in noisy restaurants more clearly, and feeling more independent, more self-confident, and better about themselves.