CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - New research suggests that brain training like the kind done at a learning center in Charlottesville is delaying and even eliminating signs of mild cognitive impairment that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

It's attracting a whole new demographic of patients looking to make their minds stronger.

While some people opt to sit down with a newspaper crossword puzzle or Sudoku to keep their minds sharp, this training takes the brain beyond that to improve attention, short and long-term memory, and thinking speed.

The beat of a metronome sets the pace in this learning center’s mental workouts. Cards, blocks, and puzzle pieces are the equipment in these brain-building exercises.

“This has, like, 17 different ways of working your attention and one of them is that your trainer will try to distract you,” Francesca Franco, the master cognitive brain trainer at the center, said.

Brain trainers like Franco lead their clients through a series of challenges in this lab at the LearningRx.

Previously, kids made up most of the center’s clientele. But now, more adults are getting involved.

“I decided that I would end up trying this to be able to increase my ability to be able to function,” Dr. Samuel Caughron, a client, said.

Seventy-three-year-old Samuel Caughron is nearly six months into one-on-one brain training at LearningRx.

“I was thinking - shoot, I used to be a lot better at this than I am now,” Caughron said.

Caughron, a family physician, wanted to find a way to combat brain fatigue as he aged.

“I'm a doctor, I'm always at optimal functioning at all times, but that was happening,” Caughron said. “And I could see it and I could feel it and I could end up being able to improve it, and that's helped.”

He treats the one-and-a-half hour sessions he attends three times a week like a workout with a personal trainer at the gym.

“I always wondered why we spent so much time studying disease, when really what we would like to be able to know is how can I stay healthy so I don't end up having the problems in the first place,” Caughron said.

Caughron is part of a growing population at LearningRx.

The center in Charlottesville started eight years ago to help school-aged children perform better in class.

Now, a third of its clients are baby boomers.

“Everything we do here is based on neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself with targeted, intense, frequent stimulation,” Dargan Coggeshall, the LearningRx executive director, said.

New research is backing up the ability of brain training to ward off mental decline that can lead to Alzheimer's or dementia.

A clinical study discovered four out of five people with mild cognitive impairment dropped their diagnosis after four months of this training.

MRI exams showed positive brain changes in all five, and they all experienced lifestyle improvements.

“They are proving themselves in the research to build skill that transfers to everyday life improvements, which is the holy grail of any training,” Coggeshall said.

Researchers are applying for federal funding to expand the study to track 40 to 60 people doing one-on-one brain training, combined with a functional medicine routine.

“Nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress-management - play, even - community - all these things matter when it comes to healthy aging,” Kerri Rachelle of Central Virginia Functional Medicine, said.

If results hold up over time, Coggeshall envisions a revolutionary re-thinking of how we keep our minds sharp.

“The most exciting thing for me is that it will tell us through scientific evidence that we as human beings can be in control of our own outcomes,” Coggeshall said.

Caughron says he's seeing results in himself.

“Things like remembering numbers, combination locks, for instance, being able to remember those, or remembering passwords,” Caughron said.
“My confidence in being able to trust what my brain does is higher.”

He believes brain training will allow him to continue practicing medicine without missing a beat due to him aging.

“I am practicing way beyond, and we need people like me to maintain and continue to be involved in the process of helping other people,” Caughron said.

Brain trainers charge $70 to $90 an hour. It’s not covered by insurance, so that cost comes out-of-pocket.

However, LearningRx hopes that will change as more research findings emerge.