June 10, 2014
Marge C. Enriquez

If you parked your car in the mall and can’t recall your slot, you probably didn’t pay attention, or you forgot. Well, there’s hope in an exercise that trains you to immediately spot an object against a sea of similar objects.

Can you follow conversations of extremely fast speakers in noisy places? There are games to train the brain to focus and process information quickly.

Finding an alternate direction to avoid traffic from Quezon City to Makati City? Traffic apps aren’t always reliable; you can train the brain to guide you to a less stressful route.

The interactive website BrainHQ  assures its members that brain exercises will not only prevent the weakening of mental abilities (especially as one matures), but also sharpen them by over a hundred percent. The program was developed by Posit Science, a “brain fitness company” composed of top-level neuroscientists.

To test their attention span, for example, subscribers look for specific animal images or balls against a rapid sequence of the same images. Or, they match tiles of sound patterns to test their memory.

To improve people skills, tight shots of faces are quickly flashed onto the screen, and one has to recognize faces of these strangers in different angles.

Studies have shown that users who do BrainHQ exercises or games for a certain time will find major improvements in their cognition abilities.

US-based neurologist and brain pathologist Dr. Patricio Reyes explained that BrainHQ (as in headquarters) is a brain gym. The American company, Posit Science, designs and tests clinically proven computer-based brain workouts.

“BrainHQ software works on the premises of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to repair itself. Neurogenesis is the ability of the brain to produce new cells. We were told that after childhood, the brain is hard-wired already. Not true. It’s soft-wired across the human life span. Through appropriate brain exercises, you can rewire the brain.  BrainHQ is an online series of brain exercises designed to stimulate nerve pathways to make the brain stronger and resilient to stimulation,” said Reyes.

Researches have indicated that some types of brain workouts or games can enhance a person’s cognition or mental processes.

He cited a comparative study of  the brains of cabbies and bus drivers in London. “The hippocampus, which is shaped like a seahorse, stores all the information. Once it’s damaged, goodbye. With MRI, the hippocampi of taxi drivers were bigger because they memorized all the complicated routes in London. The bus drivers had a routine direction.”

Reyes is frequently asked about  the aging brain and memory lapses.  He said at midlife, it’s normal to be more forgetful because the hippocampus, the part of the brain used in creating and recovering memories, often weakens.

Less accidents

Taking longer to comprehend and remember information may be embarrassing. However, the slowdown doesn’t mean that it leads to dementia, the damage of mental abilities.

A research by the University of Iowa, funded by the National Institute of Aging, showed that daily brain games brought more lasting  results in mental abilities than doing crossword puzzles. The study  was composed of 681 volunteers, over 40 years old, who were divided into four groups. The control group was assigned to computerized crossword puzzles, while three other groups undertook Posit Science’s video exercises that aimed to improve brain speed and accuracy.

“Those who did the brain exercises grew more brain cells than the control group that did the puzzles,” said Reyes. The three groups showed marked improvement in focus, memory and the ability to adjust quickly between functions. Further, the benefits of the brain workouts lasted seven years after the training.

Posit Science also cited a National Institute of Health-funded study of cognitive training for 2,832 healthy senior citizens, whose average age was 74. They were divided into four groups who participated in 10 brain workouts of 60 to 75 minutes for six weeks. The four groups were taught new skills.

Further, three groups were given  brain exercises on improving memory, reasoning and speed processing. The researchers documented the results of the training several times over the next decade.

After 10 years, results showed the groups trained in memory, reasoning and brain speed continued to show some development. The researchers also discovered that these same subjects had 50 percent less car accidents than the control group.

“If you ask older people who’ve done these exercises, they will claim that they have better control of their lives,” said Reyes.

While the normal person can engage in these brain games for an average of 80 minutes a week, Reyes recommends a minimum of five hours a week for stroke patients and people with Alzheimer’s.

“Our brain is made of different highways for memory, vision, hearing, comprehension and attention span. These are interconnected. When somebody suffers a stroke, one or two highways are blocked. You lose the ability to move, speak or feel. In Alzheimer’s, the brain develops lesions and plaques that kill the brain cells. Using this technology, you regenerate the neighboring brain cells that take over the part which has lost its function,” explained Reyes.

He also recommended this for athletes for improving strategy, memory, attention span and processing of information, and quality of life. “This science stimulates the different pathways of the brain. If you want to develop muscles, you go to the gym. BrainHQ is a brain gym.”

Houdini stunt

Ross Agathos, director of sports and education of Phoenix Group and who markets BrainHQ, said it is also helpful to performers. He cited a documentary, “Redesign My Brain,” that featured an Australian TV personality and advertising CEO, Todd Sampson, who reenacted illusionist Harry Houdini’s stunt. Sampson undertook 12 weeks of  BrainHQ, developed for him by American neuroscientist Dr.  Michael Merzenich.

After the program, Sampson showed high scores in speed of thinking, or how fast he could respond to situations and make the right decisions. He was also assessed for alertness or how much the brain can process what it perceives.

Like Houdini, who was famous for his underwater escape act, the blindfolded Sampson was wrapped in chains and wore a heavy belt that dragged him to the bottom of a diving pool. He had to remember the complicated combinations of padlocks on his arms, hands, chest, torso and feet and hold his breath underwater. To succeed, remaining calm was vital so as not to make his heart pound and consequently demand oxygen.

“Sampson was chained up and put underwater. To get himself out, he had to memorize, process the hundreds of moves for his escape and to follow them in order,” said Agathos.

The success of his escape proved that one is never too old to learn new and challenging things.

“When one has to perform, he doesn’t think anymore. He just processes. Athletes slow down not because they’re older, but because the mind is not functioning or processing the information as well,” said Agathos.

Reyes hoped to introduce BrainHQ to the Armed Forces because there are exercises for strategy and navigation. However, he pointed out that it’s the politicians who need a mental workout the most: “They will think better, and they will start using their brains.”