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exercising the brainLyme Brain. I’ve been giving you sneak peeks into my upcoming book, Lyme Brain. But this particular segment is not just related to Lyme disease – it’s good stuff for all of us, especially those with any health issues that impact their cognition and/or neurological function. Exercising the brain and keeping the brain active is important for keeping function as good as it can be!

We have talked so far about the benefits of exercise and its effects on Lyme Brain. Exercising the brain itself can also be helpful, but how does one do that? By engaging in regular tasks that require memory, focus, decision-making, and learning and reasoning processes. This can be anything from playing memorization or matching games to crossword puzzles, Sudoku puzzles and commercial programs such as Lumosity.

Companies such as Lumosity, which offer computer-based cognitive training programs, are popping up everywhere. Brain training is becoming quite a large market. In fact, Lumosity claims to have 70 million people using their web-based product.

Their website cites multiple studies demonstrating cognitive improvements amongst a broad range of individuals, including adult and pediatric cancer survivors, girls with Turner syndrome (a genetic disorder which disrupts cognitive function and produces deficits in mathematical ability), neurotypical children, older adults, adults with mild cognitive impairment and healthy middle-aged adults.

The study done on breast cancer survivors was particularly interesting given that the study was also reflecting pathology that impacts brain function rather than simply age-related cognitive decline. Chemotherapy is known to impact cognition, which potentially lasts 10­ to 20 years post-treatment. A standard neuropsychological test was given before and after the 12-week training period, during which half the women did Lumosity exercises and the other half did not. Exercises were based around working memory, processing speed, mental flexibility and verbal fluency. At the end of the 12-week period, the women who trained showed improved scores on the neuropsychological testing while the control group did not.[1]

However, there is also research that indicates the computerized training tools may not be as effective as some claim. In a 2014 review, researchers looked at 51 trials encompassing over 5000 subjects.[2] In analyzing all the data, they found that computerized cognitive training had a small but still statistically significant impact. So there was enough of a benefit to make it more than pure chance, but it was not a tremendous benefit. They also found that computerized training programs were likely to improve non-verbal memory (remembering visual images) and working memory (short-term memory and recent events) but did not seem to impact executive functions such as planning and judgment, or concentration and focus. Home-based programs were found to be less effective than programs run within facilities.

Some claim that the more effective brain-training exercises are actually those that involve daily life tasks, such as memorizing a shopping list, drawing places or items from memory, trying to recall a recipe with specific quantities of specific ingredients, and doing math sums in your head instead of using a calculator.

Other home-grown brain training activities may include creating word games (such as seeing how letters can be rearranged to form new words), learning a new language, taking up a new hobby to challenge different parts of the brain, performing activities that require fine motor skills such as crafting or sewing, and learning a new word from the dictionary every day. Other ideas include picking a city name that starts with each letter of the alphabet, writing with your non-dominant hand, and recalling items from yesterday’s activities.

Remembering things by association can be very helpful, too. For instance, using acronyms to help remember items on lists (who didn’t learn the colors of the rainbow by ROY G BIV?!). I know that I survived the early years of medical school by making up goofy stories around the words I was trying to memorize. It may sound silly, but it works! It is also helpful to arrange words on a page with different structures and different colors in order to remember them. That way, you can visualize where they are on the page or how they are written as opposed to just a generic list or a paragraph where nothing stands out. These small exercises need not take long and can be fun. It all helps.

Irrespective of the discrepancies in the research on the success of different modes of brain training and based on the premise of “use it or lose it,” it makes sense to keep the brain active as much as possible. I know people who use programs such as Lumosity and love doing the exercises every day; its structure works for them. Others love the crossword puzzles or word games in the newspaper. Yet others just create little challenges for themselves throughout the day based on activities of daily living. Whatever works for you, I have heard from many patients that keeping their brain active helps them to overcome Lyme Brain. It also gives them a sense of empowerment knowing that they are working to keep their brain as healthy as possible.

For more information on the book and to sign up for release information, visit www.LymeBrainBook.com.

[1] Kesler, Shelli, et al. “Cognitive Training for Improving Executive Function in Chemotherapy-Treated Breast Cancer Survivors.” Clinical Breast Cancer 13, no. 4 (August 2013): 299-306.

[2] Lampit, Amit, Harry Hallock, and Michael Valenzuela. “Computerized Cognitive Training in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Effect Modifiers.” PLoS Medicine, November 2014.