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People with large brain reserves can circumvent Alzheimer's. Here's how to build yours.

It's never too late to start strengthening your brain.

Photo: Shutterstock
  • Cognitive reserve is your mind's ability to resist damage to your brain.
  • Brain reserve refers to the brain structures that provide resilience against neurodegenerative diseases.
  • A certain number of people with Alzheimer's pathology never show symptoms; there are methods for developing this skill.

Not all brains are built equally. How you treat what you're given, however, matters. Around the world, 50 million people suffer from diseases of dementia. Ten million new cases appear every year. The neurodegenerative Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60-70 percent of these cases, making it one of the elderly's greatest challenges.

Fortunately, there are methods for keeping dementia at bay. Some people with Alzheimer's pathology never show symptoms of the disease. It all has to do with building up a brain reserve.

What are brain reserve and cognitive reserve?

Cognitive reserve is an individual's ability to avoid cognitive symptoms even when affected by a pathology such as Alzheimer's disease. This concept refers to one's ability to improvise in order to maintain healthy cognition, which requires co-opting other brain regions to accomplish new tasks. Your brain is flexible enough to change operational patterns to deal with challenges in novel ways.

Brain reserve specifically references individual differences in the brain's structural properties that affords one resilience against neurodegenerative diseases. An individual with a substantial brain reserve is able to tolerate age-related changes without showing clinical symptoms of disease.

Specifically, "The term 'cognitive reserve' is thus meant to represent physiological robustness within functional brain networks, while the term 'brain reserve' refers to differences in available structural neural substrates." Another way to think about it: consider brain reserve the hardware while cognitive reserve is the software running inside of it. The term that encompasses both is global reserve.

What you can do to prevent Alzheimer's | Lisa Genova

What is the physiology of brain reserve?

The cerebellum is one brain structure that contributes to brain reserve. Located at the rear of the brain, the cerebellum plays an essential role in motor control in humans. It is also involved in attentional capabilities, emotional control, and language processing. Damage to this region can result in poor motor and postural control.

The cerebellum is also the brain region that contains the highest number of neurons. This is important as numerous forms of brain plasticity occur there. This is what allows the brain to "change itself," as psychiatrist Norman Doidge phrased it. This skill—your brain's ability to change itself throughout your life through its ability to transfer functions to different regions—is the basis of cognitive reserve.

How it protects against Alzheimer's and other dementias

In a word: neuroplasticity. Doidge writes about a nun who, after suffering a stroke, continued to solve complex crossword puzzles until the day she died. There are other instances of teachers returning to work after having a stroke even though brain tissue associated with cognitive tasks has been destroyed. Their brains routed those tasks through other regions. People who are adept at any or all of the six skills below have a strong brain reserve, and therefore can recover from insults to the brain such as neurodegenerative disease.

human anatomy model with exposed brain

Photo by David Matos / Unsplash

Six ways you can beef up your brain reserve

As with anything, the earlier you begin best practices, the better. That said, there is evidence that neuroplasticity is possible at any age. Maintaining optimal health through exercise, diet, maintaining strong social ties, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and limiting alcohol use are always important for brain health. The following six practices can help you build a strong brain reserve.

Never stop learning

As noted above, one nun kept her brain healthy by doing crossword puzzles. Learning a new language or musical instrument have also been shown to help keep your brain working optimally. As with physical exercise, brain exercises keep your neural connections growing. Curiosity is an essential trait for maintaining strong brain health as well. Remaining curious is one of the strongest protective measures for staving off diseases of dementia.

Sense matters

Utilizing all of your senses is crucial. That means stopping to smell the flowers. That also means being a tactile toucher—well, maybe not at the current moment, but in general. Listening to music is its own skill. Again, curiosity matters: if you're not an avid smeller, take a course in wine or perfumery. You're not only expanding a sense, you're helping strengthen your entire neurological structure.

Have faith…in yourself

Your relationship to aging matters. When middle-aged or older volunteers were exposed to negative stereotypes about aging, they performed worse on memory tasks. How you frame the inevitability of aging affects how you age. Resilience is a mindset. If you need inspiration, consider Tao Porchon-Lynch, who continued teaching yoga and ballroom dancing until her recent death at the age of 101. Whenever I practiced with her, she would laugh and say age is only a number, and her life proved it.

Make priorities

While offloading memory to your phone can have detrimental effects, doing so in order to prioritize things you have to remember—or to free up cognitive space to learn new skills—is a great use of technology. Keep your life simple by letting repetitive tasks be on auto-pilot so you can engage new challenges with full attention.

Say it aloud

There's an old trick that sometimes works when meeting someone new: say their name three times to remember their name. Not as in, "John, John, John." That's a quick way to lose a potential new friend. Think, "Nice to meet you, John." A little later, "Where do you work, John?" When departing, "Take care, John, hope to see you again." This trick not only applies to new people, but with everything you know. By repeating a fact or idea aloud or by writing it down, you're more likely to imprint it to mind.

Take your time

In the above example, repeating "John" three straight times is less effective than saying it three times over five minutes. If you commit a factoid to memory, space out the time you repeat it. Cramming overnight for an exam never works; studying for a half-hour every day for a week does. Take your time learning new skills as well as recalling what you already know. Your memory will thank you.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

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A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
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