February 24, 2009
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Cathy Kelly

Fitness classes abound, but in a Santa Cruz Adult School classroom the exercises forgo biceps for the brain.

Last year, the school began offering Brain Fitness classes based on interactive computer software created under the leadership of UC San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

Merzenich, a pioneer in brain plasticity research, heads a company called Posit Science. The company’s computer program was developed by leading scientists from around the country, including researchers from Stanford, Yale and Harvard, and is based on decades of neurological research, the Web site states.

It’s not about memory tricks, the company insists. Rather, the software reverses brain function declines by an average of 10 years by exercising and challenging the brain. It can make one think faster, focus better and remember more.

The adult school classes are designed for those ages 55 and older, though younger people can participate on a space-available basis. But the 10-week classes have been full, school administrators said, especially after the program was featured in two recent PBS specials.

Elly Ganowsky, 83, has been in a Brain Fitness class for two weeks and said she has already noticed a difference.

“I’m so glad they offer it here,” Ganowsky said. “I think it’s very advanced, and it’s fun. I do feel that my mind is getting in better shape.”

There are two courses offered. One has students respond to visual stimulus and one seeks a reaction to sounds. Ganowsky was working on a visual exercise recently that exercises peripheral vision. Some report that it boosts their driving skills, but Ganowsky said with a laugh that she was already a good driver.

“I’m under the impression that I drive very well, though some people might not agree with me,” she said. “I just feel like things have opened up more for me, that I’m just taking in more.”

Santa Cruz Adult School was one of the first schools to offer group classes after the software became available in 2006, Instructor Donna La Valley said.

In her six classes of 20 students each, only two students reported having no improvement, she said. The exercises will not improve hearing or eyesight, she added, only the processing of the information which those senses gather.

“Some are just thrilled with the change,” LaValley said.

It’s a better brain workout than doing crossword puzzles, for instance, because it constantly adapts to the student’s level, increasing the difficulty as the student improves, Instructor John Burke said.

Burke, a clinical psychologist who has long been interested in brain function, said he has seen students improve from 20 to 40 percent.

“I’ve been very impressed,” he said. “It’s very sophisticated software. And people are very interested in brain health; it’s a class whose time has come.”

Right-brain people tend to be visual learners while left-brain people tend to be auditory learners, he said, recommending that people take the course that will strengthen their weakness.

Santa Cruz Adult School Principal Mary Powers said she did just that and completed the auditory Brain Fitness course.

“It really gets down to the gut level, to the roots of memory,” said Powers, 59. “I think I definitely have increased functions.”

Student Norma Cordova said she decided to take the class after her work as a healer slowed down with the economy.

As a 70-year-old, she said she realizes that she has taken things for granted. She recently signed up for a Portuguese class too, she said.

“This gives me a sense of what I didn’t know about brain capacity,” Cordova said. “It’s fun and challenging and I see my own need to put something into it and be more alert. And it seems like I’ve even more active mentally and willing to engage in more things that are mentally challenging.”

For Al Smith, a 78-year-old retired IBM engineer, it is just nice to know that the brain can get “reconnected” and continue learning, he said.

“I think it’s great it’s available,” he said. “It’s nice to know that people are working on things like this.”