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Neuorbics for Neuroplasticity

Brain training doesn't work as some would hope, but neither is it useless.

Key points

  • Neurobic excercises are thought to help improve the brain's plasticity.
  • Neurobics and other cognitive engagement may help slow mental decline.
  • Diet, excercise and social connections are also important means of keeping the brain young.

There’s a woman at my gym who walks on the treadmill in an unconventional manner. She treads backwards; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly while reading a magazine. After months of watching and wondering if (and when) she would trip and fall, I finally asked her about it.

Neurons from Above
Source: Blake/Pexels

Turns out, she wasn’t walking backwards to keep the wear and tear on her sneakers even or to draw attention to herself (although she accomplished both). She wasn’t even doing it for the aerobic exercise. Rather, she was walking backwards for the neurobics.

That’s right, neurobics – aerobics for the brain.

The term “neurobics” was introduced by neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz more than twenty years ago. Katz hypothesized that mental exercises, especially those that tax the brain in novel ways, can stimulate the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and connections (dendrites). The theory is that most people perform many actions by routine and that these actions are, due to repetition, hard-wired into the brain.

Without even “thinking,” most of us answer the phone, walk on a treadmill, and perform mundane daily tasks. But by switching things up – such as by walking in reverse - maybe you can challenge your brain to organize thoughts into actions in different ways and therefore improve cognitive functioning (aka thinking) – increasing plasticity and perhaps even stimulating neuronal growth (neurogenesis). Just as you lift weights to challenge and build muscles, perhaps you can challenge your brain to build itself neuronally.

In 1998, Katz, in collaboration with Manning Rubin, wrote Keep Your Brain Alive – a book describing 83 neurobic maneuvers which they described as “cross-training for the brain,” for people over the age of forty.

The activities are designed to fit into your daily routine and include writing or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, starting (NOT driving) your car with your eyes closed, and taking blindfolded taste tests to identify various foods. The challenges outlined are rather simple, not like the New York Times crossword. But nonetheless, Katz and many others are convinced they can help the brain’s structure and function.

Even though I don’t walk backwards very often, I know this idea of neurobics has been around for more than 25 years. So, do we know by now whether this stuff works or not? Looking into published scientific data on the subject, here’s what I found:

Cognitive Exercises like Neurobics Are Not Likely to Result in Neurogenesis

Sorry, you more mature backwards-walking-gym-rats. Neurogenesis happens all the time in young and developing brains, but not so much in older, developed brains and there’s no evidence that neurobics promote neurogenesis in the same way that weight-lifting builds muscle. There’s also no evidence that neurobic exercises have any distinct benefits over other types of cognitive challenges – like learning a new language training, playing a new instrument, or doing the daily Wordle. Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand is likely to improve your dexterity with that hand, but not so likely to provide a broader cognitive or neuro-structural benefit.

Cognitive Engagement Can Help Forestall Cognitive Decline

But there is good news; there’s an accumulation of solid evidence supporting the maxim “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Various types of cognitive engagement may be able to strengthen and maintain neuronal connections. For example, a study published in the journal Neurology in 2012 found that cognitive activities such as reading and playing board games were associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults. [Wilson]

The findings were echoed by an exhaustive NIH review prepared by scientists at Duke Evidence-based Practice. [Williams] There is also evidence that certain populations (including people with Parkinson’s, with mild dementia, and people recovering from stroke) can benefit more than others from cognitive engagement and training. [Patani, Ventura] But it’s not one-size-fits-all. Some activities will be more appropriate for certain people, based on a person’s deficits. A stroke patient with difficulty speaking, for instance, will benefit from speech-centric training.

There Are Other Proven Techniques to Maintain Cognitive Performance

Diet and exercise also seem to play a role in maintaining the brain’s hardwiring.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 48 studies of adults over age 60 concluded that “exercise improves both physical and cognitive function, reiterating the notion that exercise is a panacea for aging well.” [Falck]

While the literature is mixed on whether such improved function translates into decreased risk for dementia or other cognitive decline, there is evidence that moderate to vigorous physical activity in older adult is correlated with greater gray brain matter volume in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, suggesting that exercise can help preserve the working class brain tissue responsible for thinking clearly. [Northey]

And diet. Well, first off, a healthy and balanced diet can also help you to avoid diabetes and high blood pressure - both of which are bad for your brain. Hungry for dietary supplement suggestions? There is reasonable evidence that polyphenols (compounds with anti-oxidant properties found in fruits, vegetables, tea, wine and nuts) can help repair and restore neural connections and forestall age-related cognitive decline. [Maharjan] The spice curcumin, the main ingredient in curry, seems to also hold promise. It’s has been studied extensively in animal and human populations with some promising results. Practical issues remain, however, because curcumin, often poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. [Pulido-Moran]

Staying Socially Engaged

Another way to cheat cognitive decline is to avoid social isolation – easier said than done in this era of information overload, online “connections,” and “social” media. But for your cognitive health (not to mention mood) an important prescription is real social engagement with live (non-bot) people. Another extensive review including 33 studies and 2,370,452 participants showed social engagement to be protective against dementia while poor social support and poor social networks were dementia risk factors. [Penninkilampi]

So, back to my friend at my gym; was she privy to a revolutionary brain hack that would have her winning a Nobel Prize at 110? Sadly, it seems like she was primarily getting better at walking backwards. But, what about her other habits? Exercise, social engagement at the gym, and reading? Solid choices for brain maintenance! I hope she’s eating a well-balanced diet, too, and getting enough sleep - and I hope you are, too.


Katz, Lawrence, and Manning Rubin. Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness. Workman Publishing, 1998.

Wilson, R. S., et al. "Cognitive decline after hospitalization in a community population of older persons." Neurology 78.13 (2012): 950-956.

Williams, John W., et al. "Preventing Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline." Evidence report/technology assessment 193 (2010): 1-727.

Patani, Ketaki Ajit. "Effect of Neurobic exercises on cognitive function related to Post–Stroke." J Appl Dent Med Sci 6 (2020): 27-35.

Ventura, Maria I., Jerri D. Edwards, and Deborah E. Barnes. "More than just a movement disorder: Why cognitive training is needed in Parkinson disease." Neurology 85.21 (2015): 1828-1829.

Maharjan, Reeju, et al. "Role of lifestyle in neuroplasticity and neurogenesis in an aging brain." Cureus 12.9 (2020).

Falck, Ryan S., et al. "Impact of exercise training on physical and cognitive function among older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Neurobiology of aging 79 (2019): 119-130.

Northey, Joseph M., et al. "Objectively measured physical activity is associated with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex volume in older adults." NeuroImage 221 (2020): 117150.

Pulido-Moran, Mario, et al. "Curcumin and health." Molecules 21.3 (2016): 264.

Penninkilampi, Ross, et al. "The association between social engagement, loneliness, and risk of dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 66.4 (2018): 1619-1633.

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