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What’s good for the heart is good for the brain

Toronto, February 6, 2015

By James Wysotski

Maggie Atkinson does Brain HQ challenges on her iPad
Maggie Atkinson does Brain HQ challenges on her iPad. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

Maggie Atkinson, a lawyer and long-time HIV survivor, was shocked to realize that her father had better brain function at age 80 than she did at 45. Finding words was one of many problems that made conversations so embarrassing that she started to withdraw from social events.

“It got so that I couldn't even remember friends' names or everyday words like toaster,” said Atkinson.

Such symptoms, along with a shortened attention span, difficulty with short-term memory and reduced efficiency with solving problems, are typical of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder, or HAND, a condition similar to a mild form of dementia that occurs when HIV enters the nervous system and can progress at a very slow rate.

“My parents weren't having the same problems I had, so I knew it wasn't just accelerated aging,” said Atkinson. “I was definitely experiencing brain damage from the HIV.”

That was before she started the Brain Fitness program, a version of which is run by Dr. Sean Rourke, a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital.

In the program, patients improve their cognitive ability by playing progressively challenging games on the popular Brain HQ app and website that test their memory, processing speed and problem solving skills. A quick game might have patients race against the clock while sifting through a word list for synonyms. They do about 30 minutes a day for 10 weeks.

“Since [HAND] is not a complete breakdown of the brain, it can be retrained,” said Dr. Rourke. The Brain Fitness program “is physiotherapy for the brain.”

During the past five years, Dr. Rourke treated about 50 people with HAND and has “a pile of data that shows it works for some people.”


“I was only expecting people to feel better, but in fact they don't just feel better and have less symptoms, they also did better on [our assessment] tests,” said Dr. Rourke.

Human brains have a lot of redundancy and 95 per cent of what they do each day is routine, said Dr. Rourke. But if people activate the brain in a different way, they can stimulate or create new pathways.

Atkinson is living proof.

“The Brain Fitness program was a real life-line for me,” she said. “It was amazing how the words just came back. It's like the program turned the clock back by a decade.”

To prevent the improvements from tailing off, Dr. Rourke found patients had to keep at it. He said the brain is not unlike a muscle that tightens up when not exercised regularly.

His next step is to show how actual physical exercise assists those doing Brain HQ.

“What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain,” is Dr. Rourke’s credo. He said that if HIV positive people exercise, they’re half as likely to have cognitive impairment.

Since taking the program, Dr. Rourke’s patients have become more socially and physically active. It builds their confidence and self-esteem. And since cognitive status and activity levels go hand in hand, the challenges of social interactions help the healing.

“All these things have additive effects to what you do to keep your brain healthy,” said Dr. Rourke.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.