In the basement of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, there’s a group of people who spend their weekday afternoons sitting around a computer lab discussing neurons and glial cells. They’re students in a popular new course at the center aimed at improving memory.
Like their peers around the country, Oakland residents are living longer, and they are more active in caring for their own cognitive health. Now, for the first time, the center is responding to their needs by offering a computerized brain fitness course developed by San Francisco-based PositScience.
Ranging in age from 61 to 97, they work through a series of six listening exercises each designed to challenge a different part of the brain and to stimulate the release of neuromodulators, or learning chemicals.
And six weeks in, some in the class are already reporting increased alertness, sharper focus and better learning.
“Now I remember what I’m forgetting,” quipped April Hecter, 65, of Oakland.
Radiating a quiet enthusiasm from behind her sequined glasses, Teri Barr, 54, organized the class.
“I got interested because some of my students were complaining about their memory,” said Barr, who has been teaching adult education classes for 31 years. “There’s so much news about how your brain needs exercise to stay healthy.”
So, last year Barr started teaching a memory improvement class based on her own research. She meets weekly with her students to work on puzzles and other brain stimulating activities.
Leslie Hammett, 82, of Oakland was one of the first to sign up for Barr’s memory class.
“We need to keep active to avoid Alzheimer’s,” Hammett said.
That class was so popular that Barr’s employer, Pleasant Valley Adult School, began to look for a more science-based curriculum. The school invested around $4,000 in PositScience’s Brain Fitness program, which was developed by 50 neuroscientists from around the world.
The 40-lesson, computer-based course meets five days a week for two hours a day. Even though the class is a huge time commitment, 60 people turned out for 21 open slots. The school had to implement a lottery system to select participants.
“It’s just like a breast exam to prevent cancer,” Hamlett said. “This is preventative.”
Until recently, most scientists thought that there was little you could do to boost brain function once you hit adulthood. But a large scientific community now believes that the brain retains its plasticity—the ability to rewire itself for better function—even as the brain ages.
In one particularly difficult exercise, the computer plays a series of distorted phonetic sounds, asking the user to click buttons identifying the order in which the sounds were played. Other exercises involve matching and listening comprehension.
The lessons grow increasingly difficult as your skills improve. Barr calls it, “working at threshold.” And, it can be maddening. That’s one reason why Barr thinks it’s important to conduct the program as a group activity.
“We try to laugh about our frustrations. We do a lot of community building. That’s what’s better than doing it at home,” Barr said.
Paula Johnson, 61, enrolled in the class after she was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“It reminds us all that you need to work at remembering. I have to focus and work at keeping my brain sharp. You get kind of lazy about it,” Johnson said.
Barr says the course will be offered again in the spring. There is a $10 lab fee for the class, and there will likely be another lottery to determine enrollment.