Wyatt Vogland, 9, of Bloomington, stared intently at a computer screen in Minnetonka last week, balancing an imaginary red ball in his right hand.
The exercise was part of a brain training program called Kinuu created by Dolly Steichen Lowery, of Excelsior, in 2014. Through the program, she developed BrainyAct, an interactive game that helps strengthen weak connections in the brains of children with developmental delays, helping them better handle more difficult tasks, like reading and writing.
The game debuted in 2018 with the opening of Kinuu’s Minnetonka office. The company has about 30 families participating.
“Our whole game is neurologically based,” she said. “We’re getting to the underlying root cause of these disorders and helping the brain do the work itself.”
Lowery wants to make the game available for parents to use at home, saving them the hassle and expense of driving in, especially her clients who live in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties. She’s looking for 40 families in the Twin Cities area to be part of the home version, which launches in late April.
If all goes well, she’d like to take the game into the national market.
HELPING HER OWN SON
Lowery’s passion to help kids with learning disabilities came out of her own struggle with her son, Cole, who has severe dyslexia.
She spent 10 years and 1,200 clinic visits trying to find a treatment that would help him improve.
“I was very frustrated with the lack of seeing results,” she said. “Often times it would take two to three years to see any improvement, and I just didn’t think that was very helpful.”
With her background in database building and information technology, Lowery knew that the more information she had, the closer she could get to understanding how to help her son.
As she studied, she began to realize that the academic difficulties everyone could see were surface issues of a much deeper problem. Weak or broken pathways in the lower brain functions, such as gross motor skills, balance and rhythm, cause a child to create coping mechanisms that slow down the upper brain functions.
As an example, Lowery showed handwriting samples of a 14-year-old boy with autism. Before the sessions, he filled a notebook page with chaotic, somewhat illegible numbers. At the end of 28 sessions, he was able to write the numbers clearly in a straight line.
“The idea is that once those pathways are connected or strengthened, those changes will be long lasting,” she said.
A NEW APPROACH
Lowery worked with Dr. Nelson Mane, an orthopedic physician from Tampa who specializes in neurobehavioral and vestibular disorders, to create BrainyAct.
“We try to develop the brain from the lower functions to the higher,” he explained. “The lower functions should be reflexive. If they are not, you have to concentrate on them.”
The game combines traditional therapies with technology for the purpose of making it affordable for parents. Insurance usually covers only one brain training session per week, Mane said, which is not enough to make real improvements.
“We haven’t invented anything new; it’s the way we’re applying the concept,” he said. “We have taken proven, established protocols from vestibular therapy, from vision therapy, from occupational therapy. It’s the way we’re combining it and in a form that is affordable, fun for the kids and convenient.”
ROBOTS OR CANDY CREATURES?
BrainyAct, currently for ages six to 14, combines familiar technologies such as the Kinnect-style motion detector, a floor mat similar to Dance Dance Revolution, and an interactive video game.
The child enters a mostly empty office space, one of five at the Minnetonka location. The lights are dimmed so the screen is easier to see. Each child logs in with a screen name that allows him or her to stay anonymous when competing with other kids in the program. From there, children can enter one of three portals: Robot World, Micro World and Candy Creatures.
The child has a live coach in the room and a virtual coach named Fly.
In those environments, the kids are asked to perform tasks such as drawing in the air, jumping jacks, following patterns and playing notes on a virtual piano. Each of the tasks is designed to encourage the two brain hemispheres to talk to each other and strengthen those pathways.
Tom and Pat Kallio of New Brighton bring their granddaughter Kylee Jacobson, 8, to therapy on Saturdays. Jacobson has severe allergies that required heavy medications that caused her to hallucinate when she was younger, something the Kallios think may have affected her neural pathways, causing memory issues, academic struggles and angry outbursts.
“We’ve already seen improvement,” Tom said.
The third grader said she’s able to decipher spelling words better. “I can even understand what my parents are spelling for surprises,” she said.
CONNECTING THE HEMISPHERES
Besides creating an affordable option for parents, the game also collects data from each child’s movement and progress. Lowery uses this data to upgrade the game and tailor it for different disabilities.
When a parent brings their child to Kinuu, they fill out a form to create a baseline. One of the things Lowery and her team evaluate is which hemisphere of the brain is having the most difficulty.
She had one boy named Richard who wouldn’t use the left side of his body in any of the activities. He coped by overcompensating with his right side. For example, when he was asked to tap the arrow on the left side of the foot pad, he would bring his right foot across his left leg to tap the arrow.
The game adjusted to force the boy to use the left side of his body, creating new pathways that would make the coping mechanism unnecessary.
Parents are often surprised to learn about the underlying issue and see how it translates to helping fix the academic or behavioral issue.
Vogland, for example, struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He participates in three one-hour sessions of BrainyAct a week. Out of the 40 recommended sessions, Vogland has completed two, so it’s still early to see improvement.
However, the game has already pointed out one area giving him trouble.
“There’s a part with 3D objects that you have to pick up,” said his mother, Dawn Vogland. “He said, ‘Mom, I don’t really like that part.’”
She is curious to see what else will improve when he’s able to master the 3D portion of the game.
“I’m hoping it will help with his academic struggles a little bit and some of his impulsiveness,” she said.
COUNTING THE COST
The BrainyAct game has been through four studies: one in Minneapolis to test an advanced version, one in Waconia for an Institutional Review Board to see how closely BrainyAct and traditional therapies match up, one at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for the Institutional Review Board, and a fourth at Guiding Light Academy in Illinois to test how it would work in a school setting.
The cost for 40 sessions is $1,995. Participating in the home version will require a $1,000 deposit. The user will get $750 back if the equipment is returned intact.
Lowery eventually would like to develop games for all ages, including those suffering with memory loss such as Alzheimer’s patients.
Families who want to use the home version of BrainyAct need to become Kinuu clients first. For information, visit kinuu.com.