Animated Brain Teaches Children Healthy Lifelong Habits

Pauline Anderson

July 16, 2019

LOS ANGELES — An initiative featuring a video of an animated brain called Robbie and various educational materials is a promising tool to promote brain health in children, results of a new study suggest.

Investigators found that most children were very satisfied with the animated video and reported that it was very easy to understand.

Research shows that early prevention and healthy lifestyles may mitigate the risk of developing dementia. One study suggested that 35% of dementia cases might be preventable through modifiable risk factors.

Dr Eleonore Bayen and Robbie

"There are now more and more early interventions for adults 40 years and older, but the idea behind My Brain Robbie is to start very early on, in primary school," the project's lead developer, Eleonore Bayen, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurorehabilitation, Sorbonne University, Paris, France, and an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, Global Brain Health Institute, told Medscape Medical News.

The findings were presented here at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2019.

Eight Healthy Habits

The initiative centers around a character called Robbie, who appears in a 7-minute animated video that presents brain health information in a fun and engaging way.

Robbie explains the following eight simple lifestyle habits that children can adopt to protect their brain throughout their life:

  • Eating a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, which stresses the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil

  • Engaging regularly in physical activities

  • Finishing school and never stopping the learning process

  • Preventing traumatic brain injury

  • Avoiding tobacco, drugs, and excessive alcohol

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Following medical advice for managing chronic diseases that affect brain health, such as hypertension and diabetes

  • Being socially active

In addition to the video, My Brain Robbie educational tools include games and other activities that help children remember healthy lifestyle habits.

The aim is for the children not only to memorize these habits but also to incorporate them into their daily life, said Bayen.

"We don't want them just to receive the information; we want them to consider their own habits and whether these can be improved or modified," she said.

The concept was developed by a multidisciplinary team that included healthcare professionals, educators, parents, and children.

The study, which involved a 1-hour structured, timed class on brain health, was conducted at three elementary schools in a suburb of Paris, France.

The class involved a question-and-answer session about health promotion and brain function and a viewing of the My Brain Robbie video. Study participants were asked to rate their understanding of the video, their satisfaction with the video, and their willingness to share it.

The researchers also asked the students to assess the eight neuroprotective habits. Visual hints were used for the younger children. For example, an apple was used to represent a healthy diet, and a helmet was used to represent prevention of traumatic brain injury.

The study included 303 students from the second to the sixth grade. Most students were very satisfied with the video. About 64% rated it as excellent, and 29.7% rated it as good. The highest satisfaction levels were among younger students.

Sex Differences

More than two thirds of the children (68.4%) said the video was "very easy" to understand, and 24.6% said it was "easy" to understand.

As for willingness to share the video, almost half (49.8%) said that "of course" they would share it; 27.7% said they would probably share it.

Students were able to recall an average of seven of the eight neuroprotective habits. There was no significant difference with respect to grade level. This was true after removing from the analysis data from the group that received visual hints.

"Interestingly, there were differences between boys and girls. For instance, more girls remembered the healthy diet habit, and more boys remembered physical activity," said Bayen.

For both sexes, the lifestyle factor that was remembered the least was being careful about tobacco, drug, and alcohol intake, she added.

The initiative aims to reduce health inequities for all children, said Bayen. "By delivering these healthy messages and explaining these simple healthy lifestyles, we want every child to get the same information to protect their brain," she said.

In addition to children, the program can be used to educate parents and grandparents and people who can't read or write, added Bayen.

The program will be introduced in three more French schools this fall and will eventually be brought to the United States. It's currently available in English, French, and Spanish and will be soon be translated into Turkish Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese.

Cutting Edge

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, chief science officer, the Alzheimer's Association, praised the My Brain Robbie initiative for including "a cutting edge, child-friendly video" that goes a long way toward teaching children early on "what brain health looks like."

A brain health initiative for children is needed, because health classes in elementary school "never touch" on brain health, said Carrillo. "That's absolutely crazy to me," she said.

Not talking about brain health in school health education "is a mistake," she said. Such converations should be part of annual wellness visits for adults and children, she noted.

"The doctor asks you about everything else except your brain, which actually controls the rest of your health," Carillo said.

My Brain Robbie was funded by the Alzheimer's Association and the Global Brain Health Institute. The investigators have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2019: Abstract 31048. Presented July 17, 2019.

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