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Training the brain for cognitive success

Tuesday - 2/25/2014, 8:22pm  ET

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At the LearningRx location in Leesburg, Va., a brain trainer works with a student. It's the fifth center in the D.C. area. (Courtesy Lian Hollenbeck)

WASHINGTON - Lian Hollenbeck says she knew something was going on with her daughter's learning abilities from the time she was 1.5 years old.

Over the years, the Herndon, Va., mother spent hours poring over research, driving to doctor's appointments and speaking with therapists about her daughter.

She and her husband, Don, tried developmental psychologists, psychiatrists and even medications, but nothing seemed to work.

"By the time she was 10, she probably could have given any kind of cognitive test you could throw at her," Hollenbeck says. "Unfortunately, nobody really knew exactly what was going on with her or why she was just really unable to navigate the world."

Brain trainers take on students at the LearningRx center in Leesburg. (Courtesy Lian Hollenbeck)

By the time her daughter was 15, Hollenbeck says there was little hope that she was going to get better -- until someone recommended a program at a local Northern Virginia facility.

Despite being discouraged and skeptical, they decided to give it a try.

The appointment was at LearningRx in Reston, Va., one of 86 franchises in the U.S. that specialize in training the brain to improve cognitive skills. At the initial assessment, Hollenbeck finally heard what she'd been waiting to hear for 15 years: an answer to what her daughter was experiencing.

Employees at LearningRx told Hollenbeck that several areas in her daughter's cognitive make-up were weak.

"That was the very first time we'd heard anybody give us any kind of hope that something could be done," she says.

Now, one of those 86 LearningRx locations belongs to Hollenbeck, who opened a center on Feb. 3 in Leesburg, Va. It's one of five in the D.C. metro area.

Training the Brain

Training the brain is not new to educational and commercial services. Several games, apps, centers and programs exist on the market as a way to go beyond the traditional tutor with engaging interactive experiences and learning techniques.

LearningRx is one of the services on the market, established in 2002 by Ken Gibson. It has since trained thousands of clients who gain an average of 15 IQ points after completing one of the company's programs, LearningRx claims.

Brain training is not just for students struggling with school. It's also marketed toward victims of traumatic brain injury, stroke, senior adults dealing with memory loss, people with ADHD and students looking to improve academic standings or get into a competitive school.

The company claims its approach changes the physical structure of the brain through cognitive training exercises that focus on short-term memory, processing speed, logic and reasoning, visual processing and more.

Many of the exercises are conducted with the use of a metronome to get the brain working toward automaticity, and many use visual cues to elicit academic facts.

Here's an example: Imagine a card that shows a man looking up at something that weighs "a ton." This picture is one tool LearningRx uses to help students memorize the names of the American presidents.

"He is watching a ton," Hollenbeck explains of the card that represents "Washington."

Another card might show the image of a woman in a chef's hat, holding the hand of a small boy who is her son.

"A chef, her son," Hollenbeck says about the presidential card for Thomas Jefferson.

"All of these visuals are interconnected so it's creating a tool in the mind of how to remember something that's random [like] all of these names [of the presidents]," Hollenbeck says. "That's a pretty great confidence booster."

Distractions are also a major component to brain training. The programs are conducted one-on-one, but in an open common area, filled with activity from other sessions.

"Life has distractions, life has things walking through and talking so you have to deal with that," Hollenbeck says.

The Brain Trainers

Different programs at LearningRx are tailored to each client's specific needs, and the training exercises are delivered to the students by "brain trainers."

Hollenbeck, who employs about six brain trainers at her new LearningRx location, says the trainers all have a four-year college degree and usually come from a background of similar interests, such as medical and educational studies.

Kathi Kotellos of Arlington, Va., credits much of the success her daughter experienced with LearningRx to the company's brain trainers. Her daughter, Kaiya, was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia several years ago, and had struggled in reading and math.

Recommendations from specialists included a one-on-one, two-year program for dyslexia, but Kotellos wasn't sold on the idea. Kaiya had tried tutors before, and the method was not engaging enough.

The breakthrough came when a family friend asked Kotellos if she could practice some training she was undergoing Kaiya. This friend was training to be a LearningRx brain trainer.

Kaiya was instantly hooked.

"She loved it and said to me, ‘Can we get some of these games and bring them home?'" Kotellos says.

Soon after, Kotellos registered Kaiya in a 10-month program at LearningRx; she was matched with a trainer in her late 20s. Kotellos says Kaiya was able to easily relate to her trainer and looked up to her -- and she says changes in Kaiya's attitude were immediate.

"The way she was around the house, the way she interacted with us, she just seemed better."

Long-Lasting Changes

While completing the LearningRx program, Kotellos says Kaiya, who was previously homeschooled, made the decision to go to public high school. On her own will, she caught herself up in math and continued the cognitive program with her brain trainer.

"Right there, we knew there were big things happening," Kotellos says.

When Kaiya completed the program, Kotellos says the post-testing results were "astonishing."

"I can still get teary thinking about it. Our daughter grew up thinking that there was something wrong with her … And it hurts my heart to think that she's been feeling that way all the time. And when she came out of this program, she knows that she's smart. She has a different attitude about learning. The spark is back in her eyes and she's excited about learning," she says.

After her first semester in public high school, Kaiya received all A's.

New LearningRx owner Hollenbeck says her daughter also benefitted from brain training -- and similar to Kotellos', the results were almost immediate.

"I was amazed at her ability to do some things I thought she'd never be able to do," says Hollenbeck, whose daughter also went into public high school after completing the program.

"It's a radically different child than she was a year and a half ago."

Of course, there are skeptics to cognitive training. A New York Times article on the subject quotes Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University; he says cognitive training makes people better at taking tests, but does not improve overall intelligence.

In the same article, Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc., questions whether improved scores on intelligence tests translate to better grades in the classroom.

However, Hollenbeck says more and more psychologists and medical professionals are recommending brain training. She first heard of LearningRx through a specialist's referral.

Once a client completes brain training, most don't need to come back to do any sort of fine-tuning, Hollenbeck says. In fact, clients are more likely to build on what they achieved during training and continue to grow.

When her daughter went to public school, Hollenbeck worried that new pressures would cause her daughter to revert back to her pre-training routines.

"Just the opposite happened. She's just gotten better and better at doing things that she was never exposed to before because she just couldn't handle it," she says.

Because the program her daughter completed was relatively short, Hollenbeck says there is nothing else to which they can attribute her success and growth.

Kotellos describes a similar "self-reinforcing" post-program effect cognitive brain training had on her daughter.

"It seems like these things she has learned build on her own skills," she says.

According to Hollenbeck, some ADHD students benefit from the program in such a way that they can reduce or come off of their ADHD medications.

"We work specifically with attention -- sustained attention -- so that those issues that existed before brain training start to lessen or even disappear," she says.

The cost of LearningRx brain training programs vary, depending on individual needs and the length of the program, but owner Hollenbeck says she compares the cost to that of a private tutor.

Kotellos says the longer program in which her daughter enrolled was a bit more of an investment -- around $10,000 for visits a few times a week from September through June.

"So this was a big investment for us. And I tell you what, it could have been a million dollars and I would have paid it," says Kotellos, who works part-time as a consultant and whose husband works for a nonprofit.

"[Our daughter] feels good about herself."

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