Pure Genius

Cross-training for the brain

Cross-training for the brain

Posting in Design

A former Hollywood executive is now in the business of games that train your brain. He's helping prevent dementia along the way.

Dan Michel is in the business of putting brains to work. The former marketing executive discovered in his ailing father what research tells us is indisputable: Brain exercise keeps us sharp.

Michel, who was president of marketing at Columbia Pictures and chief operating officer at BBDO Worldwide/Los Angeles, founded Dakim BrainFitness in 2001. He used his background in advertising and film and enlisted scientific advisors to create a multimedia program that cross-trains the brain. The activities are as entertaining as a TV game show, and they are all played on a touch screen, so users don’t have to be computer literate.

Dakim systems are now in more than 400 assisted living centers across the country. It was recently installed at a veteran’s home in Arizona and is being tested for traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In April, the company will introduce software so individuals can use it at home. I talked to Michel earlier this week. (Click here to play some sample games.)

You started Dakim after your dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

That’s right. I’d sold my previous company in Los Angeles and was put in charge of my dad’s health care, so I’d spend a week a month with him in Chicago. I noticed that when I did things that were stimulating (crossword puzzles, reading and then talking about it, doing word games), it had an effect on him. One day it dawned on me to do this on computer software.

These games are designed for dementia prevention and stroke and TBI rehab. What kind of progress are you seeing from users?

We’ve seen some remarkable changes. A lot of the “memory” problems seniors complain about are not diagnosed problems; they just don’t look, listen and read as carefully as they used to. So we teach them to pay attention. There is a senior living community in Pennsylvania that had bought our product. There was a woman living there with dementia, named Dottie, who couldn’t speak. She could only mumble. After a month of using Dakim (and games with a lot of music), she turned to a caregiver named Beverly standing behind her and said, “You know, Bev, I wish I leaned to play the piano when I was a little girl.” She is still speaking today.

When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the early ‘90s, they didn’t think there was much you could do about it. Today we know the risk factors for Alzheimer’s—genetics only makes up 30 percent. Two-thirds is lifestyle and environment. It’s in our power to be proactive to slow the dementia.

I’ve played games on the Nintendo DS like Brain Age or Big Brain Academy, where you’re doing things like memorizing numbers. Same kind of thing?

No. Our games are richly produced, and they are aimed at adults. We cross-train your brain, switching from one cognitive domain to another as you play (domains include long-term memory, short-term memory, computation, language, visuospatial orientation and critical thinking). Novelty is very important in training. In the beginning [of learning how to do something], we see a tremendous amount of brain activity, but then it diminishes. So that’s why we have about 70 games with thousands of variations with five levels of challenges. The game self-adjusts the challenges in real time as you play, so you’re always getting an optimized workout.

If only we had the same thing for a physical workout.

We do. It’s called a personal trainer. But what’s terrific about technology is that we can have this vast library of content with movie clips and music and math and word games, and it’s all in this little computer. It can be delivered to an institutional setting for 39 cents per user per day.

What are some of the games that exercise these areas?

We have visuospatial games where you see a picture, then it turns into a puzzle with a missing piece, and you have to select which piece fits into the space. We have tons of language games, short-term memory games, scrambled letter games, anagrams, computation games.

And your dad?

He passed away in 2004. As it turns out, his illness was his final gift to me. That’s how I was inspired.

Click here to read about a new brain injury center being built at Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure