Dr. Davis's Blog


1470 Tobias Gadson Blvd #115 |  Charleston, SC 29407  | Phone: 843-556-2020

I had the pleasure of reading John Ratey, MD’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  In the opening sentences, he reminds the reader of our evolutionary roots in movement.  “As we adapted to an ever-changing environment over the past half million years, our thinking brain evolved from the need to hone motor skills.” He recounts the  “sedentary character of modern life,” and the devastating consequences that follow: “65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese, and 10 percent of the populations has type 2 diabetes, a preventable and ruinous disease that stems from inactivity and poor nutrition… What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too— physically shriveling them.”  Thankfully, small shifts in perspective are erupting across our communities to recognize this decline occurring in the driver’s seat of our consciousness. More and more research is demonstrating the perils of sendentary life and it is making its way into pop culture news sources.


Ratey describes a fascinating program dubbed Zero Hero PE, that has taken root in the suburbs of Chicago and has proven scientifically repeatable and life changing for its participants.  The requirement of the class for its participants is to “stay between 80 and 90 percent of their maximum heart rate,” monitored on each student with their own heart rate monitor.  The results are astounding.  A brief and partial snap shot of results shows “at the end of the semester, [participants will] show a 17 percent improvement in reading comprehension, compared with a 10.7 percent improvement among the other literacy students who opted to sleep in and take standard phys ed.”  The litany of academic improvements that the students in the program boast continues to be impressive on a local, national and international scale.  


This program has captivated the interest of national researchers that elucidated the correlations between fitness and academics.  In one example of a follow up study, a psychophysiologist and his team verified that “Body mass index and aerobic fitness… were the most significant contributors” to fitness and improved academic performance.  Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies “demonstrated more activity in fit kids’ brains, indicating that more neurons involved in attention were being recruited for a given task.”


“When the students go for a mile run in the gym, they are more prepared to  learn in their other classes: their senses are heightened; and their focus and mood are improved; they’re less fidgeting and tense; and they feel more motivated and invigorated.  The same goes from adults, in the classroom life.  What allows us to absorb the material is where the revolutionary new science comes into play.  In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information.”


The author begins to describe some of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, a scientific fact that explains how we continue to learn as we age; our brains are “more Play-Doh than porcelain.”   He outlines a Nobel Prize winning study that demonstrated “repeated activation, or practice, causes the synapses themselves to swell and make stronger connections.”  (Sounds like Vision Therapy to me!) The molecules that potentiate, or aid in development, of the new neural branches (the aforementioned stronger connections) is as class of master molecules known as brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF).  “Researchers found that if they sprinkled BDNF onto a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning,” a phenomenon the author has dubbed Miracle-Gro for the brain.


“Exercise strengthens the cellular machinery of learning.  BDNF gives the synapses the tools they need to take in information, process it, associate it, remember it, and put it into context.  Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise and the rate of learning is correlated directly with levels of BDNF.”  


Imagine, Miracle-Gro for the brain, so easily accessible to any human being on this planet that is able to get out and move at a moderate to brisk pace.  These implications are vitally important to people of any age.  Whether you are interested in helping your child overcome learning disabilities (“people with a gene variation that robs them of BDNF are more likely to have learning deficiencies,”) or maintain cognitive vitality into later years in life, exercise is the fountain of cognitive youth, enabling your brain to continue to grow new branches and synapse of knowledge.  What does this mean for the specialty of Vision Therapy? Many of our exercises are based on visual thinking through movement. Similary, what changes could be made by implementing a home physical fitness program to supplement work in the therapy room and in life?


In our office, neuroplasticity is seen in action daily in the Vision Therapy room for patients who struggle with general visual function, visual processing or traumatic brain injuries.  Conditions are arranged for learning to help patients of all ages. Each patient participates in visual thinking through movement as foundational exercises and tasks are layered with increasing cognitive demands as appropriate.  Now that neuroscience is catching up to the expansive web of therapeutic principles, it is an exciting time to apply new a perspective to long-valued Visual Training practices.  Moderate to high intensity exercise regularly can and will do wonders in our lives and the lives of our families and patients.  


Ratey, John J., and Eric Hagerman. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. Print.


Furth, Hans G., and Harry Wachs. Thinking Goes to School; Piaget's Theory in Practice. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.