Brain gym program fits right in at PJCC

A sharper memory. Quicker instincts. Better peripheral vision.

Can you really achieve all that with the help of a computer game?

According to Vibrant Brains, a brain fitness program that has been operating at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center since January, you can. Even if you’re in your 90s.

Lisa Schoonerman, who started Vibrant Brains with fellow San Francisco resident Jan Zivic, understands that people might be skeptical initially of her company’s claims.

“When I was in school I was taught that you’re born with the brain you’re born with and you’re either lucky or you’re not,” Schoonerman says. “And that’s what we believed — until folks like [UCSF professor of neuroscience] Michael Merzenich started doing research and were like, whoa, wait a minute. Actually, our brains are highly malleable.”

Vibrant Brains, Schoonerman explains, operates on the principle of neuroplasticity — that the brain is able to change, or rewire itself, throughout our lives.

The program, she says, is a “brain gym” designed for people of all ages to stay cognitively fit. But rather than elliptical machines or free weights, this “gym” is full of computers, which run software programs that claim to improve a variety of brain functions.

Schoonerman and Zivic began to research Vibrant Brains in early 2007, and opened their San Francisco office that December. Neither is a doctor or scientist — they’re simply businesswomen who have a particular interest in the way the mind works.

Lisa Schoonerman. photo/ rachel freedenberg

Zivic’s curiosity started 10 years ago, when she was recovering from a car accident that had put her in a coma and required her to undergo extensive rehabilitation. The experience left her with an appreciation for the brain and cognitive functions, and what it was like to lose them.

In Schoonerman’s case, her mother was diagnosed a few years ago with frontotemporal dementia, which led Schoonerman to research the brain and what can happen to it as we age.

Schoonerman notes that Vibrant Brains programs don’t claim to prevent mental diseases such as dementia, and what they do claim to do is backed up by scientific research. She and Zivic have chosen programs developed by scientists or physicians, and many have been through clinical trials to back up their claims of efficacy.

“Almost everyone has benefited” from using the program, she says.

Vibrant Brains utilizes a number of programs that focus on a variety of brain functions. Some of the most popular programs target visual processing, auditory processing and working memory, which helps with multitasking and staying focused.

The company also has a program for teens called Fast ForWord, geared toward helping with learning, test-taking and reading.

While Vibrant Brains can be useful for people of almost any age, the activities can be particularly beneficial for older adults, the co-founders claim.

George Fodor, 71, of Foster City, and his wife, Agnes, have been participating in Vibrant Brains for several months. Agnes uses the programs at home (all of the programs can be purchased for home use), while George goes to the PJCC six days a week to use the Vibrant Brains computer lab.

George is currently finishing up the Cortex with InSight program, developed by the S.F.-based company Posit Science. He has noticed an improvement since starting with the program in January.

Stanley Marblestone uses one of the Vibrant Brains computer programs at the Peninsula JCC. photo/rachel freedenberg

“In practical terms, I feel that my peripheral vision has improved as the result of the daily exercises,” he says. “And when there is a change, I adapt to it more quickly.”

Schoonerman notes that when many seniors first come to Vibrant Brains, they say they have trouble understanding their grandchildren because they “talk too fast.” After using the program, she says, some clients have increased their auditory processing by 100 percent.

“Sometimes if seniors can’t keep up, they tend to disengage, and then it’s kind of downward into negative plasticity,” Schoonerman says. “But if we can slow that down or reverse it, then all of a sudden we’re finding people become more engaged.”

At the PJCC, Vibrant Brains occupies a computer lab that is open Monday through Saturday. Most of the programs can be done on a drop-in basis, so users who have paid for the program can come in whenever they want, as long as the lab is open.

Most of the programs operate like standard computer games — users perform tasks, and earn points and bonuses for getting things right.

In the Jewel Diver game, for example, the user is shown a number of white pearls, as well as colorful jewels that are then covered by white pearls. The pearls begin to move around the screen, and when they stop, the user must click on the pearls that had covered the jewels.

Schoonerman says the visual processing programs in particular appeal to people in every stage of their lives. For seniors, the peripheral vision exercises may make them safer drivers, while for young athletes, the divided attention exercises may increase their ability to keep track of multiple opponents during a game.

“We have a client who’s a ranked amateur tennis player, and she’s convinced that because her visual processing speed is increased, it’s improved her tennis game,” Schoonerman says. “She can see that fast serve coming, and she feels more confident when she walks on the court.”

The PJCC is one of two places where the Vibrant Brains program is offered — the other is at Vibrant Brains headquarters on Sacramento Street in San Francisco.

The PJCC was an ideal place to bring Vibrant Brains, Schoonerman says — partly because the JCC provides a sense of community, which has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s in older adults, but also because of its fitness center, which complements the Vibrant Brains regimen.

“Research is showing that a really powerful combination is for somebody to go work out, then come down and exercise their brains,” Schoonerman said. “They’ve increased the blood and oxygen to their brains, and they’ve primed their brain for benefiting from this. That’s the ideal situation.”

Bringing the program to the PJCC was the brainchild of Deborah Pinsky, who became executive director of the JCC in January 2008. She had heard of Vibrant Brains from a former JCC staff member, and the idea intrigued her.

Pinsky met with Schoonerman and Zivic in her first month at the JCC, and the program officially opened there a year later.

“I want to provide more value for people here, in the sense that it’s a community center, not just a fitness club,” Pinsky said. “One of the Jewish values that we hold is a healthy mind, body and spirit, and that means more than just working on the treadmill — it means making connections with people, socializing, keeping your brain fit.”

Schoonerman and Zivic are looking to expand the program within the Bay Area — and possibly nationally.

Schoonerman admits that the recession has slowed down expansion plans a bit, as people began to cut their discretionary spending just as Vibrant Brains was getting off the ground. But she thinks that when the economy gets back on track, so will their plans.

“We believe in these programs. We’ve seen the impact they’ve had on different people,” Schoonerman says. “We feel it’s a matter of getting the word out, communicating that this is an option for everything from kids wanting to do better in school, to seniors trying to slow down memory loss. We’re fully committed.”

Dr. Michael Merzenich of UCSF will discuss the concept of neuroplasticity and brain fitness from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. May 27 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. For more information about Vibrant Brains, visit www.vibrantbrains.com or www.pjcc.org.