Brain gym offers hope for faltering memories

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:00

    SHOHOLA - Tired of trying to remember where you left your car keys? Do you make “to do” lists then forget where you put the list? What if you’re 86 and living in an assisted living facility? For many, assisted living conjures images of the people doddering around trying to remember names, or foraging for things they put “somewhere” an hour ago. Is that the way it really is? Well, sometimes, but not always. At the Twin Cedars Assisted Living Facility they’re proving it isn’t so. People in their eighties show up younger folks by using a computer program called The Brain Gym that re-trains the mind. The brainchild of neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich, the program is described as “mentally exhilarating.” It attracted the attention of CBS News, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Brain Gym tries to enhance understanding, thinking and recollection and is based on “brain plasticity.” It is available to individuals and institutions such as Twin Cedars and has made waves on the West Coast and in other areas. A San Francisco company Merzenich founded helps with cognitive revolution, which helps not only seniors, but even in some cases cerebral palsy victims and others. The firm is sending facilitators across the country with a computer-game type series of exercises that have 80-year-olds going to the grocery store without shopping lists. Twin Cedars is the first facility east of the Mississippi to try the program and, according to owner Bruce Harding, with great success. His enthusiasm spills over as he talks. “It actually builds new neuro-pathways -- a sharp new way of processing thought within our minds.” Nine of more than 30 residents at Twin Cedars are nearing the end of the first 40-hour course which started in early December. Each morning, they file into a specially equipped room set up with five computers, and go through their sets of exercises. Joan, for instance, at a sprightly 86, says she didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. With apparent gusto, she describes her progress. The first exercise teases the brain into learning the pitch of sounds, she says. Whistle-like sounds progress from low to high, and high to low, in gradations. The more quickly one recognizes the patterns, the quicker the progress. “The more you get right, the harder they get. They squeeze them closer together, and train you in the sounds you get when people are talking to you.” Another exercise gives training in perceiving and remembering the subtle differences in language. Another one helps to recall information more clearly. As a result, there is an improvement in the ability to “hear” things that often were passed up in conversation. It results in quicker thinking and faster responses. One is called the Storyteller. “They tell you a story, then ask you to remember the details. You have seen a woman wearing a robe. You’re asked, ‘what color was the robe?’ Then, where did she go first? To the rose garden?’ Another is the Fishing Spot. A man goes to a creek to fish where nobody has had luck, but the fish swarm into his net. They ask, ‘how did the fish act around him. Who did he share them with?’ And there is a whole string of other things the participant must remember.” What are the results of the training? The trainees report they hold more animated conversations around the dining tables and elsewhere. Joan agrees. “There are four people at each table. Before, some were quiet, not communicating with others much. Now we’re doing more visiting at other tables.” Like the others in the class, she realizes it’s more than just another of the leisure activities available at the facility. It’s therapy. Like any therapy, its aim is to recoup, re-invigorate, re-train something that was lost or diminished. It’s challenging and Joan knows it. “I like a challenge,” she says, not accepting that many her age shrink from the word. “It’s really fun.” The young-at-heart senior looks to the day when her budding computer skills will progress to the point that she can email her daughters. The next class is set for some time in late February, and is limited to ten students. Outsiders are welcome, Harding says. Non-residents of any age, anywhere, can try out the program by going to for an online demonstration. For more information about Twin Cedars please visit their website at or call 570-296-7471.