The neurobiology of brain and cognitive reserve: Mental and physical activity as modulators of brain disorders

Jess Nithianantharajah, Anthony J. Hannan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

270 Citations (Scopus)


The concept of 'cognitive reserve', and a broader theory of 'brain reserve', were originally proposed to help explain epidemiological data indicating that individuals who engaged in higher levels of mental and physical activity via education, occupation and recreation, were at lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Subsequently, behavioral, cellular and molecular studies in animals (predominantly mice and rats) have revealed dramatic effects of environmental enrichment, which involves enhanced levels of sensory, cognitive and motor stimulation via housing in novel, complex environments. Furthermore, increasing levels of voluntary physical exercise, via ad libitum access to running wheels, can have significant effects on brain and behavior, thus informing the relative effects of mental and physical activity. More recently, animal models of brain disorders have been compared under environmentally stimulating and standard housing conditions, and this has provided new insights into environmental modulators and gene-environment interactions involved in pathogenesis. Here, we review animal studies that have investigated the effects of modifying mental and physical activity via experimental manipulations, and discuss their relevance to brain and cognitive reserve (BCR). Recent evidence suggests that the concept of BCR is not only relevant to brain aging, neurodegenerative diseases and dementia, but also to other neurological and psychiatric disorders. Understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms mediating BCR may not only facilitate future strategies aimed at optimising healthy brain aging, but could also identify molecular targets for novel pharmacological approaches aimed at boosting BCR in 'at risk' and symptomatic individuals with various brain disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-382
Number of pages14
JournalProgress in Neurobiology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 10 Dec 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Adult neurogenesis
  • Brain disorders
  • Brain reserve
  • Cognitive reserve
  • Environment enrichment
  • Exercise
  • Experience-dependent plasticity
  • Mental activity
  • Neurological diseases
  • Physical activity
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Synaptic plasticity
  • Synaptogenesis


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