The academic abilities of Stacey Kinne's four sons run the gamut. Two are straight-A students, for whom school comes easily; one is severely autistic.
And then there's Zane.
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"I always have questioned if there is a very slight, undiagnosed learning disability with Zane," Kinne said about her youngest, a fourth-grader at Naper Elementary in Naperville. "He's always liked school, but it was almost like it was painful for him to sit down and read or have to write or do math."
Stakes are higher in fourth grade. That's when students receive letter grades instead of pluses or minuses, so Kinne and her husband knew the time was now to strengthen their 9-year-old's skills.
"Zane can be successful with the right help. We know that," she said, noting her son would struggle, for example, remembering the difference between yesterday and tomorrow. "If we give him the foundation, he will build on it."
Zane and about 75 others have gotten help at LearningRx Chicago-Naperville since the first one-on-one brain training center in the state opened about two years ago.
The center offers individualized programs designed to strengthen the neural connections in students' brains and hone cognitive skills such as visual and auditory processing, memory, attention, logic and reasoning and processing speed. These skills make up IQ and determine how well the brain thinks, reads, learns, reasons, remembers and pays attention.
"We work behind the scenes on the prerequisites to learning," said Mia Tischer, director of LearningRx Chicago-Naperville. "When one of those areas has a deficit, it affects your brain performance."
Training, not tutoring
Brain training is based on scientific findings that the brain does not have a fixed capacity but is capable of growth and can be strengthened like any other muscle, Tischer said.
The academic and medical communities agree.
Brain training uses exercises designed to stimulate areas of the brain that control or contribute to certain skills, said Jennine Harvey-Northrop, an assistant professor in communications sciences and disorders at Illinois State University, who studies cognition and aging. Research has shown stimulating different areas of the brain can create new connections that help people process information faster and easier.
"We know new stimulation can create new neural connections, and that's the key," Harvey-Northrop said. "A lot of really good programs are going to stimulate multiple areas at the same time."
Dr. Rizwan Bajwa, a neurologist with Adventist Health Partners in Hinsdale, said he agrees the science behind brain training is "very sound" and can help students by "giving dedicated access to this type of cognitive attention."
Exercises designed by Ken Gibson, author of "Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake up the Smart in Your Child," and founder of the chain of LearningRx franchises, are meant to address cognitive weaknesses that make learning a challenge. Each student consistently sees the same trainer who guides the student through different groups of Gibson's 21 exercises depending on the skills they need to strengthen.
"It's like a personal trainer for your brain," said Tischer, a marathon runner. "What physical fitness does for the body, we do for the mind."
Brain training exercises often are set to a metronome so students must answer questions on the beat. Some involve re-creating a design with puzzle pieces after viewing it for only a few seconds. Others challenge students to recall the position of numbers on a tic-tac-toe board and mentally add a set amount to each number, all without falling off the metronome's pace.
"It's a lot of brain activity, but he does it like clockwork now," Kinne said, noting her son Zane's progress.
Each exercise has 10 to 12 levels, so students can see progress and build confidence as they strengthen their focus, memory and auditory and visual skills.
"We work at a level right below frustration," Tischer said. "That's how you build skill."
Although exercises contain elements of addition and reading, LearningRx does not offer tutoring.
"He doesn't need tutoring help because I don't think it's a subject matter problem with Zane," Kinne said. "It's a brain problem."
Tischer says the center's broader approach addresses weak mental functions that cause learning problems instead of reteaching material and hoping it sticks the second time around.
"When my own child was struggling with learning, I knew that there had to be something else, because I knew that we weren't really getting at the root cause of it," she said. "I found brain training goes much deeper -- to the core of the learning struggle."
Anyone who wants to get started with brain training first takes an hourlong $249 assessment to determine their strengths and cognitive weaknesses. The assessment does not result in a medical diagnosis of ADHD, dyslexia or any other learning disability, but it helps LearningRx trainers develop a program to meet the student's needs.
"When we saw the results, we were very surprised how on-target they were with what we see at home," said Jeanne Mason of Naperville, after her 9-year-old daughter, Megan, took the LearningRx assessment earlier this year.
The test seemed to accurately identify Megan's difficulty in processing information she hears. Auditory skills are a focus of the training the fourth-grader at River Woods Elementary in Naperville is receiving three days a week at the center, with a fourth day under the direction of her mother.
While the majority of LearningRx students range from fourth-graders like Megan and Zane to juniors in high school, Tischer said brain training can help people ages 5 to 85, including those facing memory-loss issues or recovering from traumatic brain injuries.
Programs last a minimum of 20 weeks and some students receive training for as long as nine months. Parents said the programs cost several thousand dollars and require a strong commitment, but improving the learning potential of their children is worth it.
"For us," Mason said, "this is the No. 1 thing right now."
Mason said she tried tutoring before for Megan's struggles with reading, but brain training is working better.
"I think things are clicking," Mason said. "I'm really optimistic."
LearningRx guarantees students at its roughly 70 locations nationwide will see results. After students complete their training, they take the same hourlong assessment used to gauge their skills when they first sought help.
Crunching the numbers of assessment scores of 3,000 people who received brain training in 2009, a LearningRx study showed the program raised IQ an average of 15 points.
"People don't wake up and say, 'I'm going to go get brain training.' We do get skeptics." Tischer said. "Once they come in for the assessment process and we explain what we do here, it just makes sense."
Neurologist Bajwa said people considering brain training should take such guarantees with a grain of salt. And ISU's Harvey-Northrop said she is reluctant to guarantee results to older adults participating in her brain training programs because too many factors are involved -- genetics, educational background, even physical activity can affect brain training's effectiveness. But working to strengthen neural connections can contribute to better overall mental health, she said.
Nearly two years after it opened, LearningRx Chicago-Naperville is reaching out to parents, teachers and community groups, letting them know what brain training offers and how it can help anyone with reading struggles, attention problems or the desire to gain a mental edge.
Brain training is a relatively new concept and not a focus for Naperville Unit District 203, where both Megan and Zane are students, so no one with the district could comment about it, spokeswoman Susan Rice said.
Parents like Kinne, however, are spreading the word about the benefits their children are seeing. When Zane returned from his first week of school and said, "Mom, I was the smartest in my class in math today," she knew the training was working.
"I do think it's absolutely helping him, but I think it's also building his confidence," Kinne said. "Just seeing that gives him the confidence to know 'I am getting smarter; I am getting better; I am able to do this.'"
Brain: Process begins with $249 evaluation