Santa Monica 'brain gym' studies tasks to help fight Alzheimer's, other brain-related disease

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) -- At the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, Richa Rajan is working both brain and body on a Cyber Cycle.

"I'm trying to really pay attention but it's definitely a workout," said Rajan.

Cycling while playing a video game is one of many "dual tasking" workouts. The experts have clients exercise while challenging the brain. Studies have indicated that walking, strength training and other workouts improve the structure of brain cells, but researcher Dr. Sarah McEwen says you can increase cell plasticity or staying power better when dual tasking.

"When you do exercise you grow new neurons within the hippocampus which is our memory center. However those neurons will quickly die off in the absence of a cognitive stimulation environment. So doing cognitive training and physical exercise training at the same time has a greater effect than doing either separately," said McEwen.

Her four-week UCLA study had subjects perform simultaneous aerobic exercise while doing a memory training program. And she's getting impressive results.

"It's not enough to study isolated areas in the brain. We want to look at the networks and how the networks are interrelated and talking to each other. Planning, reasoning, problem solving, those sorts of things, because we're doing these more dual tasking motor exercise," McEwen said.

Psychometrist and trainer Ryan Glass assesses each client prior to the workout. He says along with physical pros and cons we also have cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

"Most people when they see this program they're afraid to engage in it because they feel they're gong to fail. So what we do is we start them with what they're successful with. We scale them up steadily over time. Usually about 12 weeks. They're challenging themselves and their progressing but they're not frustrated," said Glass.

Beyond the Pacific Brain Health Center, they're trying to create a model for fitness professionals that they can take and use in the gym for brain and body.

"We're trying to perfect this system so we can eventually take it to health wellness and fitness locations around the world because this issue of cognitive decline is epidemic and we're not going to solve it ourselves," said Glass.

"We know there is an Alzheimer's epidemic right now. Unfortunately there is no cure. What we have at our fingertips right now is prevention. Physical activity and cognitive ability. Those are the two things we have that improve our brains," McEwen reminded.
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