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BrainHQ Training Program for Vets with TBI

BrainHQ is a training program developed by the software company Posit Science that was recently put to the test in a small study that included 83 military personnel with cognitive impairment following a mild TBI. This study was conducted at five different Veterans Affairs health care sites and sought to discover the impact of brain training exercises on the cognitive ability of these veterans.

Half of the study’s population was randomly assigned to the BrainHQ group and half were assigned to play normal computer games like hangman or boggle. These groups were instructed to play their respective games for one hour a day, five days a week, for twelve weeks.

After twelve weeks, the BrainHQ group had improved by an average of 9 points on a standard 100-point assessment of cognitive function. The games group (hangman and boggle) improved by 2.3 points on average. After another twelve weeks, this time with neither group playing any games, they took the cognitive assessment again. The BrainHQ group had retained all its gains on the exam and the games group’s improvement had fallen to 1.9.  In addition, 77 percent of the vets using BrainHQ improved their cognitive function, while only 38 percent of the games-playing vets improved theirs.

Although these findings would certainly have a greater impact if the sample size was larger than 83 military personnel, it still met the criteria that the American Academy of Neurology has set for research assessing the effectiveness of interventions such as BrainHQ.

Approximately 314,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with a mild TBI. What is now considered the signature wound of these wars, has left many of these veterans with lifelong cognitive impairments in memory, attention, planning, judgement, and understanding.

Melissa Dengan, 63, was 36 when her convoy was attacked in the Middle East, leaving her unconscious for five days. “I woke up back in the United States, and didn’t know how I got there,” she said. After waking she described herself as “pretty muddled,” a feeling that would end up lasting decades.  Overwhelming depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of her post-traumatic stress left Dengan struggling to concentrate, remember, and learn. Group therapy sessions helped with her psychiatric problems but   did not help with the cognitive ones. Dengan had trouble focusing after reading just a couple paragraphs and was struggling to retain any information. She recalls once leaving the stove to go to the bathroom and forgetting to go back – once starting a kitchen fire.

The study on BrainHQ shows promising signs for the 314,000 veterans like Dengan. BrainHQ aims to improve the cognitive functions that are evident in so many of these veterans after a mild TBI; now there is some evidence supporting that it can help.

Dengan began participating in BrainHQ and even before the twelve weeks were up stated she was able to retain more information, and her long and short-term memory problems didn’t seem as severe. Before, participating in BrainHQ, Dengan reported that every time she would read a book, she would lose her concentration and go back, and it was like reading a whole new novel; She didn’t remember anything. But since the brain training, she noted that had been able to read whole books without going back.”

Although the study did not conclude that BrainHQ could assist veterans’ performance times on real-world tasks, it did improve their self-reported ability to make appointments, to remember why they walked into a room, and plan their days. Joe DeGutis, the study’s co-author, says that “we can’t definitely say that everybody who has had a TBI should do this form of brain training, but some people showed large improvements in objectively measured cognitive functions.”

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