Can The Distracted Brain Be Rewired?
As a kid, Rick Damigella was overwhelmed by school. As an adult, he was often overwhelmed by life. Having ADD meant "I would start a project, not finish it, and go on to something different," he says. "When I read, I'd have to go over the sentence a couple of times, and it wouldn't make sense when I got to the bottom of the page. It seemed like I was in a fog."
Father of three and a sewer and water worker for Quincy, Mass., Damigella, 35, began the Dore Achievement Centers program in October 2003. After testing, he was given an exercise regimen that included tossing a beanbag, walking up stairs with his eyes closed and coming down the same way, only backward, and trying to balance on a wobbly board. Every six weeks he was re-evaluated, and the 10-minute, twice-a-day exercises were changed.
The Dore program, which now has five centers in the United States, began in England and has been used by 14,000 people. It's based on the theory that people with ADD have underdeveloped cerebellums, the part of the brain that sits on the brainstem. Clients are given customized exercises designed to stimulate the cerebellum and, through repetition, create new nerve pathways that will allow information to be transmitted more efficiently. "We're finding the symptoms are either resolved completely or dramatically improved," says Linda Williams, a physician and the U.S. medical director for Dore. The company reports that more than 90 percent of its clients say the program, which costs about $2,500 and takes nine months to 15 months, significantly improved their ADD.
After six months in the program, Damigella says: "I'm more focused. Things are clearer. I don't feel overwhelmed. I'm more aware of how to get a problem solved before it gets worse." Other changes are evident: "My house used to be in shambles. Now it's all organized. I'm dealing with work differently. My reading is better. I use my calendar for appointments. Before, I'd forget. People would call me and say, `Where were you?' "
Many experts dismiss the method, and even those intrigued by it concede that the program is long on anecdotal evidence and short on science. Though clinical studies are in the works, "the data [are] not there," says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, coauthor of the best-selling Driven to Distraction. "This program has no scientific study to back it up. Some say it's old wine in new bottles."
Skeptics. Nonetheless, Hallowell has put his son Jack in the program. The 11-year-old had already been helped by medication and tutoring but still struggled with reading fluency and "executive function" including organizing and completing series of tasks. Hallowell and his wife, Sue, were skeptical going in, he says: "We were not ready to see results when there were none."
The result? "Three months into the program, he's starting to like to read. All the executive function stuff has improved," Hallowell says.
Still, Hallowell says people with attention deficit "should definitely get the standard treatments first. Medication for ADD is far more proven and tested. As of now this is an experimental, alternative treatment."
While Hallowell is waiting to see what the studies show, Damigella is a believer. An unexpected plus: "When my brothers start giving me a hard time, now I'm a lot quicker on comebacks."
This story appears in the April 26, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.