Give Your Brain A Workout

July 21, 2008
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Potentia and Gymco Sports have teamed to bring an adult “brain fitness club” called Connections to West Michigan, and they’re preparing to launch its inaugural class.

Connections is a year-long program that’s conducted in a social group setting consisting of eight to 10 adults. Physical literacy, laughter aerobics and computerized brain training are the three basic components of the program. 

Physical literacy is physical movement designed to increase neural connections through repeated movements. This component of the program is provided in partnership with Gymco Sports and its founder Doreen Bolhuis, a nationally recognized physical education professional with extensive knowledge of brain research.

Laughter aerobics — the simple act of laughing out loud, combined with breathing — reduces stress, strengthens the heart-brain connection and boosts positive brain chemistry, a lot of which is connected to learning and memory, said Cynthia Novak, founder of Potentia.

The third component — computerized brain training — delivers intense stimulation to very specific areas of the brain related to language to help the brain maintain speed and capacity as it ages, Novak said. Connections’ computerized cognitive training “rewires” the brain using patented scientific learning software that’s licensed by Potentia. The software was developed by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. It provides intense, frequent stimulation to specific centers of the brain. The computerized cognitive training is done in a quiet, softly lit room that’s outfitted with individual computer workstations.

Novak said Connections is designed for a wide variety of individuals: the person who simply wants to improve brain function, the struggling adult learner, and the CEO who’s finding it harder and harder to keep up in the workplace. She said the program also offers hope to individuals challenged by early dementias, such as early Alzheimer’s, and to cancer survivors who experience “chemobrain,” the mental cloudiness people experience before, during and after chemotherapy.

“It’s neurogenesis that we specialize in here, whether we create it through physical movement or create it through stimulation with the software,” Novak said. “We want to cause new neurons to grow in your brain, and we want to make them practice firing together so that you have a new pathway. For people who’ve actually had their connections weakened, we can strengthen those so they can function differently.” 

The Connections program also can help retool the auditory cortex to deal with sound perception problems. As people age, Novak explained, their brains lose the ability to perceive sound accurately.

Stimulating neural development and, subsequently, neurogenisis, takes time and intensity, Novak said. A group typically meets twice a week for 30 minutes of physical literacy and 15 minutes of laughter aerobics. A Connections group could include a mixture of adults across the age spectrum. However, younger people and older people could be scheduled differently for the computerized cognitive training sessions. The actual parameters for computerized cognitive training are set by the neuroscience clinic department at Rutgers University, Novak pointed out. Rutgers uses functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and positron emission tomography, or PET, scans to validate the change that’s taking place in the brain. Depending on the individual, the computerized cognitive training portion could be scheduled at 30 90-minute sessions over six weeks, or 40 one-hour sessions over 12 weeks, or two 30-minute sessions a week for 48 weeks.

Novak said research shows that a 48-week duration is necessary to develop new brain chemistry and new physical connectivity. The 48-week Connections program is set in a non-clinical, spa-like environment at Potentia headquarters in the Terrazzo Plaza on East Paris Avenue SE. As Novak explained, people who sign up for Connections want to improve their brain function but they don’t want to do it in a doctor’s office, clinic or remedial center environment. The Potentia site works well for Bolhuis, too, because her Gymco facility is designed for children rather than adults.

Novak worked for 35 years for the Cadillac school system, where she developed a gifted and talented program and, later, at the superintendent’s request, delved into brain research to develop a systematic approach for training teachers how to drive positive change in students. Bolhuis had been teaching physical literacy to children for 28 years at Gymco. The two met at an Inforum West Michigan event and discovered they shared an interest in physical literacy and brain function. After talking, they realized they were really tracking along the same lines but were coming at it from different angles — Gymco from the children’s angle and Potentia from the adult’s angle.

“Cynthia became aware that Gymco was working on an adult physical literacy DVD series,” Bolhuis recalled. “She realized that the physical movement piece, which she didn’t really understand very well, was a critical component of what she was trying to achieve in terms of brain development for adults. She really wanted that to be a component of what she was doing, and that’s how the Connections program came together.”

For nearly three decades, Gymco’s team has worked with physically and mentally challenged children and has seen firsthand the benefits of physical movement in terms of brain development, Bolhuis said. She and her team stay abreast of the latest neuroscience research on the brain, how people learn and how it relates to physical movement, she added.

“The research simply confirms what we have seen here on a day-to-day basis in a practical sense,” Bolhuis said. “What’s nice now is to have the clinical research that supports what we already know.  

The partnership in Connections enables Gymco to step into the adult market, which it was prepared to do with its adult physical literacy DVD series, Bolhuis noted. She has already piloted the Connections’ physical literacy component at Porter Hills Retirement Community. The participants and the wellness director were “just thrilled” with the program, she said. Beside the brain development piece, the other benefit she sees is that physical literacy increases independence among older adults because it increases their physical ability.

Novak said that in this emerging medical triangle that is Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland, the topic of brain plasticity makes the newspapers.

“People are more aware of the fact that we can teach old dogs new tricks and slow the rate of decline in the brain at any point in life,” Novak concluded. HQX

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