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Company using innovative ways to heal brain injuries

ABI Wellness focuses on improving a patient’s quality of life after a brain injury
Mark Watson, CEO of ABI Wellness, is seen with Clayton, a man who benefitted from ABI’s innovative brain health recovery program. (Photo submitted: Mark Watson)

A local company is changing the way cognitive care is practised.

ABI Wellness focuses on significantly improving a patient’s quality of life after a brain injury. The company uses innovative ways to heal and retrain the brain.

“The brain has a remarkable capacity to change and that is called neuroplasticity,” said Cloverdale’s Mark Watson, CEO for ABI Wellness.

Headquartered in Langley, ABI does outreach work with hospitals, not-for-profits, and clinics across North America.

Watson co-founded ABI, along with Howard Eaton, when the two realised there was virtually no one around the world attempting to repair, retrain, and improve cognitive function in people with brain injuries.

“The typical standard of care is that we compensate around the weaknesses,” explained Watson. “But we focus on improving cognitive capacity.”

Watson helped to grow a private school at UBC that focussed on neuroplasticity. He said that’s really where ABI Wellness got its start. That school (Eaton Arrowsmith) was “doing something unique and disruptive” in the teaching of people with learning disabilities. “We focussed on improving a person’s cognitive abilities. We did that because we wanted the child, or adult, to become more independent when they left assisted education.”

Watson said their goal was to graduate people that could be more independent, hold better jobs, and be more productive members of society.

And while Eaton Arrowsmith focused on people with learning disabilities, ABI Wellness took that “unique and disruptive” neuroplastic work and pivoted it to brain injury.

Initially, Watson was skeptical of the whole brain recovery process. He had no idea about neuroplasticity and he didn’t think the brain could change it all.

He said there was no eureka moment that changed this; it happened gradually. Watson would get referral after the referral from institutions and hospitals that had hit walls with what they could do for patients. But they knew, through the grapevine, that the Eaton Arrowsmith at UBC was changing the landscape of with their unique neuroplastic work.

“Medical and legal professionals started to send referrals and inquire about accessing our program.”

Watson said they were getting people that basically had no hope for any further recovery, so they thought, “why not give the program a try?”

After about a dozen or so referrals, people were able to see real results, positive results, and positive changes in a growing number of patients that previously would have been written off with no hope of improvement.

After that Watson and Eaton went to the faculty of medicine at UBC and proposed a clinical trial.

“The question was, ‘Can people with chronic brain injuries and cognitive issues engage in a program to help them improve their cognition?’”

Through the success of their clinical trial, the pair launched ABI Wellness. Now their method of brain recovery is used to help people across the continent.

Watson said ABI’s method, called Brain Enhance And Recovery System (BEARS) has shown a 77 percent return-to-work rate and has helped improve the lives of people from every walk of life.

“The brain has the capacity to change throughout a lifetime,” he added. “Neuroplasticity is very much possible, but unfortunately it’s not being deployed as much as it could be. We’re working to change that.”

Watson said they’re also now in the process of designing avenues to utilize the BEARS platform to support people suffering cognitive dysfunction from Long-Covid. They’ve so far been liaising with a couple groups in the United States primarily, but they’re now also talking with health authorities in B.C.

Watson said the BEARS system was created with the help of two mentors, ABI co-founder Eaton (who also helped start Eaton Arrowsmith) and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, who created the curriculum that was used at the school.

“Barbara understands how to train neuroplasticity and deploy it,” said Watson. “So we used her curriculum.”Eaton, he added, isn’t one to sit around and think about things. If he sees a problem, he jumps to find a solution.

Watson said ABI is on a mission to make two major changes in the world. They company wants to help people with brain injuries recover as best as they can and they also want to change the way society thinks about brain injuries.

“All the current research suggests that once a patient is two years post-injury, whether a concussion or a more severe brain injury—inclusive of stroke, they’ve made as much progress as they could make,” explained Watson. “But that’s not true. People aren’t utilising neuroplastic resources. The brain does have capacity to change throughout a lifetime.”

He said research has proven this, but that information has not been readily available to doctors and occupational therapists in clinical practice.

Watson said families have also been a driving force behind the need for change. Those who support loved ones with brain injuries wanted more, wanted better treatment and recovery, wanted hope.

He cites a story of a boy and his family who moved from Alberta just to be a part of ABI’s program.

“As part of his vocational program, he was told to pick up garbage,” explained Watson. “Now there’s nothing wrong with picking up garbage, but why not give the child more options? Why don’t we try to train up his cognition before assigning him a specific task for life. It feels like they just wrote the kid off.”

Watson said unlike physical rehab—where there is a plan, where there’s accountability and everything’s measurable—with cognitive issues, there has never been that “road to recovery” mentality.

“It’s always been, ‘Take some pills and wait and rest,’ but I just don’t think that’s the right way to do it.”

He said it comes down to figuring out what kind of active rehab can be used in cognitive rehab for each individual.

“What can we learn from active physical rehab and then apply it to cognitive rehab?

“It’s targeted therapy for the brain,” added Watson. “We’re starting to understand how to do that better with cognitive rehab. And I think that’s really really exciting.”

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Malin Jordan

About the Author: Malin Jordan

Malin is the editor of the Cloverdale Reporter.
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