Why Exercising Your Brain May Help With Depression, Anxiety

Dr. Bruce Wexler, a neuroscientist and founder of C8 Sciences, on helping to pioneer an affordable mental health treatment

The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is on the horizon. But as officials distribute vaccines, and the average number of Covid-19 cases decreases, an invisible pandemic persists. The world continues to experience a major mental health crisis

One year in, many are experiencing some form of “pandemic fatigue.” At the end of 2020, more than 42% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, one in five health care workers has recently experienced moderate depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

A new study warns global leaders that post-pandemic PTSD is a “significant public health concern.” For example, in a separate case study, after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, nearly 14 years later, a study showed that 14% of rescue workers and residents surveyed still had PTSD (a much higher rate than comparable groups.) 

That’s where Dr. Bruce Wexler, a Yale University neuroscientist, comes in. Wexler is passionate about creating affordable solutions to help people cope with mental illness. He’s the founding scientist of C8 Sciences, a company that brings brain training games to people suffering from ADHD, depression and more.

KCM sat down with Wexler to learn more about these brain exercises, and on a larger scale, to learn more about the mental health crisis the world is facing and what global leaders need to do to solve it.

KCM: Could you describe the mental health crisis the world is facing right now? 

Dr. Bruce Wexler: Well, there are two levels of it. As you probably know, there’s been a crisis going on for a while. Depression is the second leading medical health burden worldwide and has been projected to be number one by 2030.

Now we have the pandemic on top of that. You probably know this statistics as well as I do. The rate of depression has tripled. ER visits for mental health reasons have increased for children. And as the New York Times recently reported, there’s just not enough therapists. We can’t meet this crisis with the traditional methods that we’ve tried. 

Why was the pandemic such a recipe for disaster for people’s mental health? 

Well first we’ve lost the activity, the social interactions and access to the places that literally sustain our mental health. We need those safe and familiar places that we return to, day after day, week after week, literally to renew ourselves. And we’ve lost those. For many of us, this has been hard to understand. 

But when you step back and see the fierceness of protests to reopen gyms, hair salons and other spaces, you can see they show the hunger we have for these familiar environments. That hunger overwhelms reason and caution, unfortunately. 

Then, it’s not just that we’ve lost the familiar things we need to sustain our wellbeing, we’ve replaced them with stress. So many people have lost their jobs, or work in high-risk jobs. Their rent is late, food is scarce. And then over 500,000 people have died — who were spouses, partners, children — to other people.

All of this stress actually damages the brain systems that we need to maintain our wellbeing, the same ones that are compromised by the loss of the environmental connection. So the implications are huge. 

You mentioned that there aren’t enough mental health professionals to go around right now, and I know you, yourself have pioneered different types of tools for treating mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Could you tell me about these tools? 

Many of the tools have been developed by the National Institute of Health, which is supposed to support new research and develop new treatments to help our society. In one category, there are meditation and physical exercise programs. In another, which is the most modern and innovative, we have cognitive exercises for your brain, which I’ve primarily worked on. 

We’ve designed brain games that strengthen the systems that the brain uses to decrease anxiety and maintain a healthy mood.

They’re all incredibly low cost, easy to distribute, and they allow people to have more control over their own health and their own care. The cost of one of these to use for a whole year is less than the cost of a single psychotherapy session. 

Could you tell me what a brain training session is like? 

The games are made to look like computer games. A typical training session is 20 minutes. And in that training session, you would do four different games, for five minutes each.

Each game could have a hundred different difficulty levels, but you don’t have to worry about the difficulty levels because the program will automatically shift to different levels based on feedback. The technology shapes the intervention for the particular individual. 

What process happens in the human brain while someone is playing a game? 

We’re the only animal that shapes the environment, that then shapes our brains. This is called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to be shaped by input.

So now, let’s say you’ve had an injury to your leg and your muscle hasn’t been used for a while. You have to gradually build this strength up. You go to the gym and you exercise that muscle. With depression, certain neural systems have been compromised. In fact, the systems that have been compromised are the ones that control your emotions and are important for certain types of thinking. This is why depressed people have trouble concentrating and have trouble with memory. We’ve identified what those brain systems are, and we know how we can activate them with these brain games.

A lot of people recommend mindfulness meditation for treating depression and anxiety. What’s the impact of stimulating your brain with games versus sitting still with your thoughts? 

I compared some of the research data on mindfulness with our data, and both showed improvement on the same cognitive functions through different means. Interestingly, they’re both enabling the brain to heal itself, but in different ways. Both are valuable tools! 

What needs to be done on a large scale to tackle the huge mental health crisis we’re facing?

Now that we made these tools why don’t we deploy them? In my opinion, we need something like Operation Warp Speed for mental health. The big difference is that if we used these new tools, the rollout would cost 1% of what vaccines cost because these treatments have already been developed and vetted by our institutions. 

We have large tech companies that could partner with neuroscientsits to bring these out on a large scale for our country and show the world that we can use American science and technology to deal with this aspect of the pandemic. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Written and reported by Amanda Svachula.