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Can mental exercises help those with traumatic brain injuries?

Do exercises for the brain actually do any good for people hoping to fend off the mental ravages of age? What about people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of accidents?

There is an entire national industry that has grown up around "brain training." Unfortunately, legal action against some of those companies over their claims has somewhat tarnished the reputation of brain training altogether, which may not be fair. It could also unnecessarily discourage people who suffer brain injuries from getting the help that they need to improve.

Brain plasticity, the concept behind the idea that the brain is trainable and able to improve its abilities through certain forms of training, is real. Researchers using long-term studies have confirmed that people who are taught reasoning skills and given other cognitive exercises slow their mental decline as they age when compared to others without similar training. The risk of dementia alone drops about 29 percent.

Less certain are the real-world applications for people who suffer concussions and other brain injuries. It's very unclear why, but some people with injured brains respond very well to mental exercises and others simply don't.

People do show improvements in their ability to complete almost any test they are taught to complete and allowed to practice over and over again. The problem is that there is little evidence for real-world applications. The ability to reason through a puzzle, for example, doesn't seem to translate into reasoning skills the patient can use in his or her daily life.

However, patients who have survived brain injuries sometimes tell a different story. Some claim that brain exercises have helped them learn how to handle things like navigating a subway or city streets, planning a trip and tolerating the noise and bustle of strangers all around them. These were skills they had lost after their head injuries.

Recently, experts in the field published their conclusions that brain training shouldn't be counted out when it comes to improving the daily life of people who have suffered brain injuries. While the miraculous results offered by some companies may be mirages, the benefits to many patients are not illusory.

Brain injuries do require extensive recovery time and medical intervention, no matter what. Anyone suffering from a brain injury is encouraged to seek support and legal advice.

Source: Popular Science, "Can exercising the mind improve our abilities, or is it just another self-improvement fantasy?," Andrew Zaleski, March 26, 2018

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