5 Ways to Boost Cognitive ReserveYou may have heard that we are born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have. That’s not completely true. After we’re born, the brain continues to develop new cells until around age 2. At that point we mostly have all the brain cells we’ll ever have. However, there’s even an exception to this. There’s a portion of the brain called the hippocampus that is thought to be able to produce new cells with memory and learning.

Since science hasn’t yet found a way to regrow brain cells, it seems like anything that develops abnormally or is damaged in any way leaves us basically out of luck. That can certainly be the case, but the brain can actually find a way around that. The brain can bypass or compensate for this using what’s called cognitive reserve.

In cognitive reserve, the brain does not create new cells. What happens is the brain’s neurons and cells change the way they communicate with each other. To oversimplify, neurons communicate through a network, so when one pathway doesn’t work, the signal chooses a different way to get to its destination. The brain’s ability to do this depends on several factors. It also finds differing levels of success depending on the case and the severity of the damage.

Most of the research on cognitive reserve has been done related to trauma from injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. In these cases, the physical damage is more clear than in psychological cases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, the physical damage does not necessarily indicate the severity of the effect from the injury or abnormality, thus the need for an explanation like cognitive reserve.

The brain structure of people with bipolar disorder is different from those without it, lending itself to be a candidate for the cognitive reserve theory. There are cognitive deficits in bipolar disorder that are similar to those in cases of other types of damage: memory problems, inability to focus, quick thinking, inhibition and decision making. These problems don’t just occur during depression or mania either. They stick around between phases. That’s why bipolar disorder isn’t simply present during an episode. It affects daily life in all sorts of ways.

In recent research, Dr. Celia Anaya and colleagues found that the higher the level of cognitive reserve in bipolar patients, the better those patients fared with the previously listed symptoms as well as quality of life in general.

Basically, the better the cognitive reserve in bipolar patients, the more functional they are day to day.

This is good information, but there are practical reasons for having it. Just like the brain has the ability to bypass damage and create new pathways on its own, there are ways you can help it to improve cognitive reserve and cognitive function.

1. Do something different
When you do the same thing over and over, your brain is going react the same. Shake things up. Take a different route home. Try a different jogging trail. Find some new recipes. Take a trip!

2. Don’t stop learning
There is something to the proverb, “learn something new everyday.” Read a book. Watch a documentary. Go back to school! You don’t even have to pay for it. There are free courses such as HarvardX or Open Culture. You can also find podcasts and audiobooks that peak your interest and help you learn at the same time. The possibilities are endless!

3. Challenge yourself
Take note of your weaknesses and work on them. Think you’re bad at math? Try a new technique. Not an artist? Try doing something creative like writing or painting. It doesn’t even have to be good. Finding a new hobby is a great way to stretch your brain’s abilities.

4. Exercise
It’s the tried and true method for mental health that everyone loves to hate. The thing is, exercise uses quite a bit of your brain. It gets blood pumping and you take in all sorts of information about your surroundings. It’s never too late to start a new exercise regimen.

5. Get some sleep
Your brain goes on cleanup duty and memory consolidation when you sleep. Spinal fluid enters the brain and cleans up waste proteins including beta amyloid, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Lack of sleep can trigger both mania and depression. Basically, sleep is really important.

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Photo credit: A Health Blog