Brain Gym claims challenged
Exercise ... a Brain Gym activity.
Australian neuroscientists have attacked a taxpayer-funded brain-training and exercise program used in NSW classrooms for making ''silly'' pseudo-scientific claims when explaining how it works.
The Brain Gym program, created in the 1970s by an American educator and taught in more than 80 countries, is being used by teachers in all states in an attempt to improve students' learning.
Practitioners usually charge $660 for the basic Brain Gym 101 course, aimed at teachers and students.
But the program has generated controversy overseas, with the British Neuroscience Association in 2008 slamming the product for promoting neuromyths.
Teachers can train with more than 60 Brain Gym practitioners in Australia outside school hours and use its activities in the classroom. The NSW Teachers Federation confirmed NSW teachers can be reimbursed through their schools' professional development funds, provided by state governments.
The Brain Gym website says its 26 physical exercises will "bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in concentration, memory, organising and more" by developing "neural pathways" in participants' brains.
"Brain Gym is expensive to run and not backed up by science like it claims," said Emma Burrows, a neuroscientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne.
"We already know increasing exercise and hydration will improve blood flow and brain function,'' Dr Burrows said. ''This is commonsense."
One exercise involves participants massaging their ''brain buttons'', the soft tissue under the collarbone, with one hand while placing their other hand over their belly button. The manual claims this will boost memory and increase the flow of electromagnetic energy.
"Teachers are given explanations for why these weird, almost Monty Python-like exercises help the brain, like specifically increasing circulation to your frontal lobe to improve rational thinking, and that's where it gets a bit silly," Dr Burrows said.
Cognitive scientist Emeritus Professor Max Coltheart of Macquarie University was alarmed that taxpayer money was being spent on a program not supported by neuroscience research. "Where is the evidence that it helps?'' he asked. ''Education departments say [they are] committed to practices firmly based on research so it's irresponsible to let teachers use it when there is no proof."
Evonne Bennell, based in Warrawee, has taught Brain Gym to many primary and secondary teachers from public and private schools, and directly to students for six years.
"Many teachers come looking for support, wanting to help kids with learning difficulties," she said. "They've found when the movements were done, children were calmer, better able to focus and participate, creating more opportunities for successful learning."
Research on Brain Gym use in Australia by Associate Professor Jennifer Stephenson of Macquarie University in 2009 revealed all states provided some level of explicit support for Brain Gym.
Brain Gym Australia could not provide peer-reviewed scientific evidence for its claims when asked by Fairfax Media.
A practitioner of 20 years, Julie Gunstone, said: "Brain Gym writings are based on neuroplasticity which is an accepted part of neuroscience today."
A Brain Gym consultant in Melbourne, Tracey Tinker, has treated hundreds of autistic children through the program. She said Brain Gym was the only program that had helped her son and daughter, now adults, who had Asperger's syndrome.
"I have been asked by many parents of children I treat why Brain Gym isn't mandatory in all schools as they have found it to make a profound difference to their children's behaviour and learning," Ms Tinker said.
Despite the controversies surrounding brain-training programs, Professor Pankaj Sah of the Queensland Brain Institute believes the gap between education and neuroscience can be closed.
"The time is right for neuroscience to be in dialogue with education because in the past the two fields ignored each other," he said.
"Neuroscience is progressing so fast and we're understanding more how circuits operate and how it can be changed, and this can be applied to people. We can work together."