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Text: Marga van Zundert
Picture: Science Photo Library
Keep fit exercises for the brain
It feels like a game. On the tablet screen is a car which you must steer along a winding road. As you do so, signs pop up left and right. They are not directions but arithmetic problems. If you enter the right answers, you move up to the next level. But this ReMIND-app is much more than a computer game for the users. It is rehabilitation and brain training. The game improves concentration and memory.
Strengthening the brain
“We know that the nerve cells of the brain –neurons –make new connections throughout our lives, or at least well into old age,” states Margriet Sitskoorn, professor of clinical neuropsychology. “This is called neuroplasticity, and it is a wonderful thing because it means that we can strengthen our brains, just like you can strengthen your muscles by going to the gym.” Solving sums while driving is a way of increasing your attention span. Get the answers right and you move up to the next level, which involves driving, solving sums and watching various meters all at the same time. This is an exercise in dividing attention or basic multitasking.
For healthy people too
ReMIND is the brainchild of Prof. Sitskoorn and fellow researcher Karin Gehring. With the help of the Elisabeth-TweeSteden Hospital in Tilburg and Petra Hoogendoorn, whose partner had undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor, they developed a program of progressive brain exercises. Even a successful operation can leave the patient with some cognitive disability calling for active rehabilitation. A trial was held among a group of 140 patients and appeared to be a great success. Having used ReMIND as instructed, they were shown to have improved concentration and a longer attention span. They could complete more difficult exercises and were less likely to experience fatigue.
Training without therapists
To allow even more people to benefit from the program, the developers went on to produce a version which will run on a standard tablet computer. Karin Gehring explains “Clear instructions and demos mean that the therapist is no longer needed. A tablet is relatively easy to operate. If necessary, a friend or relative can show the patient what to do.” Various hospitals are now examining whether the app is as effective as the original program. There has also been international interest. Sitskoorn and Gehring are now working alongside the University of California, San Francisco, where brain tumor patients are using an English version. Sitskoorn hopes that healthy people will also start to use the ReMIND app. “Exercising the brain helps to avoid cognitive decline in later life. Keep challenging your brain and it will serve you well for life.”
“Keep challenging your brain and it will serve you well for life”Margriet Sitskoorn, professor clinical neuropsychology
The development of the ReMIND app was made possible by financial support from Innovatiefonds Zorgverzekeraars (Health Insurers’ Innovation Fund), Stichting ’t Hoofdgerecht and CbusinesZ. Field research at Elisabeth-TweeSteden Ziekenhuis was conducted by PhD student Sophie van der Linden with funding from the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw).