Ahead of the Game
The first MRI scans have been analysed from an innovative “braintraining” trial at Auckland University – and the early results look promising. Joanna Wane reports.
It’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy. Super Bowl hero Tom Brady – the 39- year- old New England Patriots quarterback who’s been described as an “ageless wonder” – is such a big fan of brain-training that he reckons it’s as important to how well he performs as physical fitness, the right diet and getting a good night’s sleep.
He says the exercises help him “stay sharp and make better split- second decisions on the field”. It’s possible they might also help protect him from
damage caused by any nasty head knocks when he takes one for the team.
When Auckland neuroscientist Dr Melanie Cheung began brain-training sessions with a 24-year- old former professional rugby player last year, he had been sidelined from the game after a series of concussions and was suffering from headaches and nausea. Within a month, he was symptom-free.
“After each knock, it took him longer to recover, and he had a lot of issues with his brain speed, which had slowed down from all the hits,” says Cheung, who focused on key neural pathways to “rebalance” his brain and build up some resilience to the occupational hazards of contact sport. “Working memory, brain speed, attention... he improved by a standard deviation in almost everything we measured.”
Cheung’s been working with Professor Mike Merzenich – the man who developed the science behind the Brainhq exercises Tom Brady uses – since 2014. She spent seven months with Merzenich in California at the Brain Plasticity Institute and Posit Science, looking at how the principles of neuroplasticity might be used to help people with Huntington’s disease. The following year, North & South wrote about her Fighthd trial at Auckland University’s Centre for Brain Research, using a computer-based programme to try and shore up cognitive processes most vulnerable to attack as Huntington’s takes hold.
The first group have now completed 100 hours of training. MRI brain scans taken before and after were sent to the United States for analysis and compared to a control group, who played a series of online games. The results, which Cheung has only just received, give cause for hope, with both the visual and attention networks (which influence working memory and concentration) showing increased connectivity. “They were talking to each other better and the attentional networks also had a large increase in activation.”
Merzenich, who was awarded the prestigious Kavli Prize for neuroscience last year, says the findings suggest “substantial underlying neurological remodelling” in every targeted domain – from attention, processing speed and working memory to emotional recognition.
Cheung and Merzenich are now collaborating with Brazilian researchers at the University of Campinas near São Paulo, and Cheung is keen to extend her Fighthd project, which until now has focused only on Maori families.
Her interest in concussion began when she was approached by a physiotherapist concerned about patients suffering persistent symptoms, ranging from “brain fog” to depression. She’s since developed training programmes for sports players both here and overseas, and has also worked with several people injured in car accidents.
Asked about scepticism over the value of brain training, Cheung says there’s a big difference b et weenn euro plasticitybased exercises–which target higherlevel processes and have a cascading effect on other functions downstream – and commercial brain-training that doesn’t have the same “scientific thrust”.
“What we say about the changes that take place in your brain from training that’s not neuroplasticity-based is that if you play those [ games], you’ll get better at them, but it doesn’t generalise into the real world.”
In January, an analysis of the evidence on whether brain-training helps healthy ageing, published in the medical journal N euro psychological Review, found 11 out of 18 commercially available programmes had no clinical trials or empirical evidence for review. Posit Science, which developed Brainhq, came out on top for both the number of published studies and the quality of its scientific evidence.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and son celebrate his record fifth Super Bowl victory after a comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons in February.