By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
When I hear the words “fitness center” at a rehab facility, I generally think of exercise machines, free weights, foam rollers and physical therapists. But the Brain Fitness Center at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence is definitely different.
It looks like any other office – except for the human-sized pod called the Orrb against the wall – but it is helping lots of active-duty military members with cognitive dysfunction.
Cognitive complaints are some of the most common for service members coming back from deployments. The Brain Fitness Center was developed around 2008 to help anyone with difficulty in areas such as attention, memory and thought organization.
“We wanted to design our Brain Fitness Center so it could be used by anyone, with or without a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury,” said Kate Sullivan, a speech-language pathologist and the director of the center. “We provide services to varying populations that include those with psychological health issues and oncology patients complaining of cognitive changes after cancer treatments.”
Sullivan and other researchers thought the patients, who were mostly young men, might respond well to newly available computer games for the brain.
“For this population, there is a competitive nature of wanting to score better and master something,” Sullivan said. “On top of being fun and engaging, we hope it’s also strengthening certain areas of the brain.”
The BFC offers several brain-training programs, most of which are web-based and have compatible apps for use at home. The games are part of a larger rehab process, Sullivan said. The center is still researching its programs to see which have been the most helpful for cognitive function.
A biofeedback heartrate variability program is also offered at the BFC in the optimized environment that is the Orrb. While inside it, the program measures a patient’s heartrate variability, which is the difference in time between each heartbeat.
“The purpose of using biofeedback in the Orrb is to enable patients to block out external distractors and focus on reaching a coherent state where their heartrate variability is in a steady rhythm,” said Steph Marble, a research assistant at the BFC. To do so, patients focus on their breathing and entering a positive emotional state while working on program activities in the Orrb.
Biofeedback is a popular activity at the NICoE.
“I was having difficulty concentrating and being able to cognitively accomplish what I wanted to do each day,” said an unidentified NICoE patient who was diagnosed with mild TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder-related issues. “I liked [the biofeedback] because it was kind of a challenge, a game. For me, it equates to athleticism — if you have a good heartrate variability, you’re able to recover quicker and process more oxygen, and the body works more efficiently.”
Brain Games to Do From Home
I did some digging and came up with a few web-based programs for those who want to work on their cognitive skills at home. Lumosity, Brain HQ, Fit Brains and Dakim Online were all created by neuroscientists and focus on cognitive domains including memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem solving. They all keep track of your progress and are tailored for each person’s needs.
In order to pick the right program for you, follow these tips:
- Figure out how much effort is required.
- Make sure it’s a structured program with guidance on how often to use it.
- Have the exercises vary and teach you something new — it’s the only way to exercise important parts of the brain.
- Check to see if the programs increase in difficulty so they continue to challenge you.
- Make sure the program fits your goals, like managing anxiety or improving short-term memory.
Research shows that doing something repetitively often can improve varying parts of your brain. The BFC encourages its service members to work on brain games at least three times a week for half an hour, although that may vary depending on the patient.
Games Great For Providers, Too
The BFC is more than just a supplement to patients’ current therapies. The staff has noticed how it can be a great resource for providers, too, such as speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists. They can offer up the BFC as a structured, supportive environment for homework activities and as a transition for discharge.
“[Patients] could attend individual therapy twice a week and then come to the BFC three days a week,” Sullivan said. “The computer can do thousands of reps and increase the difficulty in real-time. This allows an intensity and challenge level more than what a provider could do in the same amount of time.”
It also allows more time for the providers to focus on the individualized goals of each patient.
The BFC also offers a touch-screen computer for those patients who may have difficulty using a computer mouse. Most recently, it incorporated mindfulness-training classes as an additional option.
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