Returning vets get remarkable results with brain training

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by SHELLY SLATER

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaashelly

WFAA

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 10:26 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 15 at 10:32 PM

The U.S. Department of Defense just took a big step in granting brain research for returning soldiers, and the outcome is even more promising than local researchers hoped.

As it turns out, it doesn't take years, months, or even days, to re-build the brain.

It takes hours.

Just ask the guys going through it. They're elite and highly trained, from Navy SEAL snipers to Marines.

“You can't be on guard all the time," said Ryan Parrott, a former Navy SEAL sniper. "You have to relax sometime."

Parrott is retired and working alongside other special operations veterans from the Navy, Army and Marines to train civilians how to defend themselves.

Their Trident team also works on high-security missions. And yet the greatest challenge is dealing with the footprint of war.

After thousands of hours of the most intense tactical situations, now there is a new kind of training.

It’s mental training at the Center for BrainHealth, geared to re-wire the brain using high-level thinking.

“We have gyms everywhere, but we need brain gyms,” said Center for BrainHealth Director Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman.

Chapman exercises the brain by making Parrott and fellow former SEAL Clint Bruce memorize every word flashing in all caps. Moments later, they have to pick them out from a sea of words.

“We are literally able to see the brain re-wire after eight hours of training,” she said.

That means greater blood flow to the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that makes decisions and controls judgment.

“We have a hard time with short-term memory, and I found out that's because in the military, we live day by day, hour by hour," Parrott said. "We live in the moment. When you get out, you have to think about the future."

With tasks designed to push the brain, the outcome is significant. The center takes pictures of the veteran's brain before and after training.

Gaps rewire not in years, but in hours.

From sorting and organizing famous faces, to difficult true-or-false questions, Bruce said half the battle is knowing what he's up against.

“If I tore my hamstring, I’d go get it treated," Bruce said. "So now that I’ve scarred my brain, okay... it's just like any other part of my body. Let's fix it."

His IQ can recover from trauma, but if the frontal lobes aren’t active, researchers say it's not enough.

“There are so many agencies out there to help them pay the first month's rent, or get the first job, but if you don't have this cognitive capacity to really learn, move and change with the job, that is a short-term Band-Aid,” Dr. Chapman said.

She said for guys who fought for us, we need to fight for them. It's a duty.

“They do not want to be disabled, they don't want to be enabled, they want to be empowered,” she said.

“They have given us some fundamentals that are life-saving utensils,” Parrott said.

Researchers say you have to keep exercising the brain in order to reap the benefits. It is not a one-time training.

More soldiers are wanted to participate in this new research. For that, contact Molly Keebler at 972-883-3412, or molly.keebler@utdallas.edu.

E-mail sslater@wfaa.com

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