Your ADHD Brain -- Only Stronger

The proponents of Cogmed's working memory training gush about the improved focus and organizational skills in ADHD teens who use the alternative therapy. So my son and I decided to drink from the Holy Grail. Here is what we found.

Progress Chart

I was told that changes often take time to appear -- sometimes several months after the training is completed.

Katherine Ellison

Having tried a flock of touted traditional and alternative strategies to manage my son's ADHD, I was skeptical about the wondrous claims made for working memory training.

Clinical psychologist Charles Shinaver, Ph.D., a former director of outpatient and assessment services at Deaconess Psychiatric Hospital and spokesperson for Cogmed -- one of the most popular of such programs -- insists that the training transformed his own ninth-grader. His son, he says, wound up earning "the best grades of his life," teaching himself Farsi, mastering the guitar, and making so many friends that his parents had to "shut down our taxi service…to keep our sanity."

Dared I hope for a similar miracle for my son, Buzz, and me, given that both of us have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD)? Shinaver’s anecdotal enthusiasm aside, several recent peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals suggest that Cogmed’s intensive, five-week training may improve an ADHD child's capacity for focus, leading to the Holy Grail of self-control. So it would seem that the program is worth a try, despite the twin hurdles of high price ($1,000) and heavy investment of time.

How It Works -- and Why

Working memory -- the ability to hold information in your head while you’re trying to achieve a specific goal -- is a core problem for many children and adults who have ADHD. A working memory deficit can flummox you during the simplest tasks of daily life, such as trying to figure out why you opened the refrigerator door or keeping track of a conversation. Poor working memory is a strong predictor of academic failure and a major threat to self-esteem.

This explains the lure of working memory training. The neuroscientist Adele Diamond, Ph.D., an international expert in children’s cognitive development, based at the University of British Columbia, describes Cogmed -- software developed by Swedish researcher Torkel Klinkberg in conjunction with Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute -- as both "the most researched" computer-training program of its kind "and the one that was repeatedly found to be successful."

Independent researchers who did controlled studies of the training have found that participants improved in several areas, including planning and organization, motivation, and attention. Scientists at the Karolinska Institute have also confirmed that Cogmed training physically changes the brain. MRI brain scans have shown changes in the pre-frontal and parietal regions at the end of the five-week training period.

My 15-year-old son and I certainly needed some of those brain changes. As I describe in my recent book, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, Buzz has struggled in school, under-achieving academically and repeatedly being suspended for bad behavior, while I’ve had trouble controlling my temper, especially with him. I’ve also dropped my share of balls juggling work and house-wifery.

We decided to try it. All I’d have to do -- ha! -- was convince my reluctant, skeptical teen to complete roughly 40 minutes of brain-training exercises, five days a week, for five weeks.

The biggest surprise was that this turned out to be easier than I’d expected. Conveniently, my son owed me $166 for a recent mishap involving a smashed, glass-framed poster in the hall outside of our family therapist’s office. He signed a contract in which he promised to complete the exercises or pay for the damage. He finished the training, on time, with few complaints.

I could soon tell that it wasn’t just the money that motivated him. The Cogmed exercises are adaptive -- they get easier or harder, depending on your performance -- and when you do well, the rewards are immediate and powerful. Each time you get something right, you hear pleasant music and "see" your success mapped out on a bar graph. As you do better, your computer monitor flashes encouragement, such as "Great!" "Go-go-go!" or "You Rock!" If you mess up, there’s no punishment, only silence.

If only we parents of ADHD children could be so consistent! Additionally, the Cogmed program involves guidance from a coach, who checks in on you each week by phone. Psychologist Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., filled this role for us, calling my son and me to discuss our progress and cheer us on. Tuckman captured my gym-rat son’s imagination by comparing the exercises to weightlifting; daily repetitions make you stronger.

Continue Reading Page 2: Our Results With Cogmed Brain Training


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TAGS: Improving ADHD Memory, Brain Training for ADHD, Alternative Treatments for ADHD

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