In the late 1990s, a group of like-minded clinicians and scientists at the University of Pittsburgh noticed something unfortunate: a distinct absence of programs designed to help senior citizens with mild memory issues. There were plenty of options for those already experiencing the later and more devastating stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, yet resources were lacking for seniors who wanted to preserve their mental acuity or tackle early onset signs of memory impairment.
Dr. James T. Becker, a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and psychology at Pitt, is one of the original team members who helped launch the Brain Training and Exercise (BRiTE) Wellness Program in 2016. The other members are Dr. Oscar L. Lopez, director of Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and Dr. Elizabeth Skidmore, chairperson of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
The team’s goal was to develop a program that stimulates the brain and body of individuals with cognitive impairment to boost their overall health and well-being. The idea came from a years-long collaboration with the Fundacio ACE Barcelona Alzheimer Treatment and Research Center. “When we had the opportunity to partner with them, we decided the smartest thing to do was model our program after their success,” said Dr. Becker.
In 2016, Grifols International provided the initial funding needed to get the program off the ground. BRiTE relies on activities designed to reduce frailty while increasing strength and endurance. Participants work through a variety of cognitive strategies that include physical activities and immersion in the arts. The program is unique compared with anything else offered in the Pittsburgh region.
“What we have is a program specifically designed for individuals with mild cognitive dysfunction by experts in the field,” said Dr. Becker.
Every person who expresses interest in participating in the program undergoes an initial evaluation. Data collected during the assessment is used to craft a wellness profile focused on four areas: cognitive, emotional, physical, and social health. A patient baseline is established that can be used to help patients track their progress as they move through the program.
When the program first launched, all classes were held in person. Three days per week, participants gathered at the BRiTE Wellness on-site location for three to four hours of classes. Participants could choose from several classes offered in creative arts, music, and physical education/activity. Everyone who signs up for the program receives access to a computer-based cognitive stimulation software program for at-home use.
During the pandemic, everything was shifted to a virtual format out of necessity, said Dr. Becker. In August, they started to develop a new hybrid model that would allow participants to attend either in person at the Glenshaw Valley Presbyterian Church location or virtually from their homes.
“This will be the new model moving forward to facilitate growth,” said Dr. Becker. “It also makes us pandemic-proof since members can still participate from home if they feel uncomfortable in large groups.”
At present, the program has around 30 participants. “With our new format, we hope to increase those numbers dramatically,” said Dr. Becker.
The program also received new grant money from the Pittsburgh Foundation that covers the cost of new equipment purchases, new program staff, and class specialists. Having these essentials covered helps lower the cost of the program for all participants.
The BRiTE Wellness program is not covered by insurance providers but funds are available through a generous grant from The Buncher Foundation to help cover the cost of the program for those who need it; no one is turned away from BRiTE for financial reasons. Dr. Becker said that he and the other founders are also working to conduct clinical trials to collect the data needed to show the efficacy of their program.
You can schedule an intake appointment with the BRiTE Wellness Program by calling 412-404-2405. To learn more about the program, visit the BRiTE website at www.BRiTEwellness.org.