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.

North & South - - Science -

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.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Me­lanie Che­ung.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.