Background: The theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability and Mediated Learning Experience of Reuven Feuerstein states that individuals with brain impairment, because of congenital or acquired origin, may substantially and structurally improve their cognitive functioning, by a systematic intervention based on a specific, criteria-based type of interaction ("mediated learning"). Three application systems are based on it: a dynamic-interactive assessment of learning capacity and processes of learning, the LPAD (Learning Propensity Assessment Device); a cognitive intervention program called "Instrumental Enrichment Program", which trains cognitive, metacognitive and executive functions; and a program, which is oriented at working in context, Shaping Modifying Environments. These programs have been applied in widely different target groups: from children and young adults with learning and developmental disabilities, at risk of school failure, or having failed at school, because of socio-economic disadvantage or congenital neurological impairment; disadvantaged youngsters and adults in vocational training, to elderly people at the beginning of a dementia process. Experience with cognitive rehabilitation of children and adults with acquired brain damage, has been relatively recent, first in the Feuerstein Institute's Brain Injury Unit in Jerusalem, later in other centers in different parts of the world; therefore scientific data are scarce.
Objectives: The purpose of this paper is to examine how the Feuerstein-approach fits into the goals and proposed approaches of cognitive rehabilitation, and to explore its relevance for assessment and intervention in individuals with congenital or acquired brain damage.
Methods: The methodology of the Feuerstein approach consists of four pillars: dynamic assessment, cognitive activation, mediated learning and shaping a modifying environment. The criteria of mediated learning experience are explained with specific reference to people with acquired brain injury. The procedure of learning propensity assessment device uses visuo-spatial and verbal tasks known from neuropsychological assessment (such as Rey's complex figure drawing), as well as a in a pre-test - brief intervention - post-test format. Cognitive activation is done in various ways: a paper-and-pencil relatively content-free program called "instrumental enrichment", with transfer of learned principles into daily life situations, followed by metacognitive feedback. Four case histories of acquired brain damage are analyzed: a 19 year old man with extensive post-astrocytoma frontotemporal brain lesions; a 19 year old man with bilateral frontal and right temporal and parieto-occipital parenchymatous destruction after a traumatic brain injury; a 24 year old man with hemispherectomy for intractable epilepsy because of Sturge-Weber syndrome; and a 30-year old man with left porencephalic cyst after cerebral hemorrhage.
Results: Structural cognitive improvement could be demonstrated in positive change scores in visuo-spatial memory, associative and verbal memory, abstract thinking, and organizing tasks, even more than 10 years post-TBI. In some cases a rise in IQ has been documented. Improvement in daily life functioning and academic skills (re)learning has also been seen.
Conclusions: Though impossible to claim scientific evidence, the case histories nevertheless suggest the importance of interactive assessment in designing intervention programs which have sufficient intensity, frequency, duration and consistency of mediation; furthermore, an essential ingredient is the ecological approach which requires working with the patient and the whole network around; a firm "belief system" or that modifiability is possible even with severe brain damage and many years after the injury; a cognitive, metacognitive and executive approach, and a quality of interaction according to criteria of mediated learning. They suggest that Feuerstein approach may offer interesting perspectives to cognitive rehabilitation. More extensive research is needed to provide a broader scientific evidence base.
Keywords: Cognitive rehabilitation; Feuerstein’s theory of structural cognitive modifiability; acquired brain damage; dynamic assessment; ecological plasticity; mediated learning experience.