Olga Maluf, principal of P.S. 316, in Brooklyn, New York, was looking for a new program to help her students, not by teaching them their ABC's, colors, and numbers, but by changing the way their brains fundamentally work in the classroom. After much searching, she found Activate, created by C8 Sciences, which helps children build their cognitive skills.
Developed by Bruce Wexler, M.D., a neuroscientist at Yale University, Activate is one of the latest brain-training products available for children with attention difficulties. The program consists of simple computer-based video games, combined with physical exercise, that engage the functions of the brain that are deficient in children with ADHD, such as attention, following directions, and response inhibition. "It's like a school lunch program for the brain," says Wexler.
RESHAPE THE ADHD BRAIN
Activate is based on work done by Wexler in studying the neuroplasticity of the brain in patients with schizophrenia. He demonstrated that the brains of patients with schizophrenia could be physically changed by exercises that triggered certain regions. This concept underlies Activate, which uses video games and physical exercises to engage and shape the brain of a child. "We developed exercises that engage the slow-developing regions of the brain," says Wexler.
As a child plays the Activate video games, they get more challenging. In one game, a yellow ball floats across the screen, and the child is instructed to click on the ball with his mouse whenever the ball turns red. After the child clicks correctly a few times, the ball moves faster, and more balls appear. The balls turn different colors, but the child is only supposed to click on the red balls. Then the child is instructed to click on other colors.
Wexler says that this game helps children learn how to pay attention and follow directions, then they work on focus and response inhibition — not clicking on the ball when they aren't supposed to — skills that kids with ADHD often lack.
The physical component of Activate is integrated into a school's gym classes. In one game, students move through the gym, tossing beanbags to one another. Each student has to remember to whom they've already tossed a beanbag and try not to repeat tosses. This brings a physicality to Activate that is unique. "I was intrigued by the program because it was tied to physical development," says Maluf. "Our children are often deficient physically."
EARLIER IS BETTER
A year after instituting Activate in her school, Maluf is sold on the benefits of the program. She launched Activate in one small after-school activity. A few months later, she purchased Activate for all of her students in kindergarten through second grade — the group she believed would have the most to gain from it.
Time will tell the long-term impact of Activate, but Maluf is excited by the changes she sees. "Our students pay better attention, and they have improved in physical ability."
Activate has been implemented, to some degree, in over 40 schools across the country. Last year, it was also made available to the general public for home use, and is currently being used by over 2,000 families. C8 Sciences offers its program to families on a "pay what you want" basis.
"I feel confident that we have made something that will work for children as their brains are developing," says Wexler.
KAREN BARROW is a freelance health and science writer based in New York City. She holds a master's degree in biomedical journalism from New York University.