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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 26, 2016

16 Ways to Increase Neuroplasticity (and Why That’s Important)

By Mark Sisson
40 Comments

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For hundreds of years, the localizationism theory of the brain reigned: the idea that the adult brain is composed of distinct regions, each responsible for a separate function. Most people still hew to this, assuming that vision goes here, memories there (with separate sections for short and long term memories), smell here, verbal fluency over here and quantitative processing over there. We assume the number of neurons is fixed and their wiring soldered.

But the emerging science of neuroplasticity shows how wrong this is: rather than fixed and immutable, the neural connections between different “regions” of the brain can reorganize themselves. This is why someone with brain damage to one part of the brain can often recover—neuroplasticity allows a healthy section to assume the role of the damaged section. It’s also how we learn, form memories, and develop new skills.

Neuroplasticity can refer to the strengthening (or lessening) of existing neuronal pathways (synaptic plasticity), or the establishment of entirely new neurons and connections (structural plasticity).

Cool. So neuroplasticity exists. What’s it good for, and why should we care about preserving or enhancing it?

Most neurodegenerative diseases are accompanied by a loss of neuroplasticity, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Schizophrenia may actually be a “disorder of neuroplasticity.” Loss of neuroplasticity even characterizes mild cognitive impairment. It may very well be the case that the aging brain is a less plastic brain. If we can enhance neuroplasticity or hold back its degradation, perhaps we can mitigate the scariest effect of aging: the loss of cognitive function.

Neuroplasticity isn’t wholly good, of course. Depression is often associated with negative neuroplasticity—plasticity that establishes unpleasant thought patterns, not beneficial ones.

Ultimately, neuroplasticity allows us to adapt, to respond, to evolve in real time to a changing environment. Want to get rid of bad habits and establish good ones? Want to acquire a new skill? Want to remain cognitively fluid and mentally limber as you age?

You’d better support healthy brain plasticity.

One way is to provide the basic substrates required for maintenance of neuroplasticity. Lacking them will definitely impair our ability to grow new neurons, establish new connections, and strengthen existing ones.

Another major mediator of plasticity is brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which regulates axonal growth and remodeling, as well as synapse formation and function. Axons are the (relatively) long, slender structures linking two neurons together; synapses are the junctions where axons connect to neurons. BDNF is remarkably “activity-dependent,” meaning we can affect its expression by performing certain behaviors.

So what does this all look like?

Get enough magnesium.

You know how any article about magnesium begins with something about how it’s “involved in over 400 physiological functions”? Neuroplasticity is one of them. Giving rats magnesium threonate increased synaptic plasticity and the number of synaptic connections, and it improved cognitive performance on tests of spatial and associative memory. Magnesium also increases plasticity in the visual cortex of mice.

Human studies are scant, but we do know that Alzheimer’s patients have lower brain levels of magnesium, which jibes with the animal research.

Get enough choline (and maybe supplement with specific forms).

We use choline to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter required for neuronal plasticity. Two forms of choline in particular—CDP choline and Alpha-GPC—have been shown to increase brain plasticity following stroke.

Don’t sell pastured egg yolks short though. While they may not contain as much concentrated choline as the supplements, they are the richest natural source and contain many other brain-friendly nutrients (selenium, cholesterol, DHA).

Sleep.

Sleep might be the most essential nutrient for neuroplasticity. The sleep deprived brain is hyperconnected. It’s muddled with connections, dense with nervous information. Sleep restores that. Sleep provides a soft wipe of the brain, giving you the opening necessary to lay down new connections, form new memories, and learn new skills.

Eat fish.

Animal studies reveal that omega-3 fats enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus, synaptic plasticity, and long-term potentiation of learned behaviors. As for humans, seafood intake is consistently linked to lower rates of two of the conditions that brain plasticity protects against—depression/suicidal ideation and mild cognitive impairment.

Eat turmeric (or use curcumin).

In rats with depression, curcumin improves neuronal plasticity while reducing the depressive symptoms. In humans with major depressive disorder, curcumin reduces depressive symptoms. While the human evidence remains circumstantial, I’m confident that turmeric/curcumin can aid neuroplasticity.

Move frequently at a slow pace.

Compared to strength training, aerobic training is a far more potent booster of BDNF. A rat study even showed how running can inhibit the depression of neuroplasticity that usually occurs after a stroke.

That’s not to suggest resistance training is useless for cognitive function. In fact, a recent paper found that strength gains, but not aerobic gains, in response to training were associated with cognitive improvements in mild cognitive impairment.

Sprint.

Sprinting is an even better way to boost BDNF. Sprinters have high basal levels of BDNF, with elite international sprinters having higher levels than amateurs.

Go hard.

Intensity seems to be the key mediator of exercise-induced BDNF increases.

I’d imagine anything of sufficient intensity will do the trick: a CrossFit WOD, a 20 rep set of squats, playing Ultimate frisbee, a few barbell complexes, several sets of burpees, or anything from this post.

Go fast.

I don’t mean “go quickly.” I mean go without food for 12-24 hours, AKA intermittent fast. Fasting is a sure-fire way to increase BDNF levels.

Bonus: fasting also increases neuronal autophagy.

Mitigate stress.

Stress dampens neuroplasticity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex while increasing it in the amygdala (our “lizard brain” associated with fear, anger, anxiety, and other autonomic emotional responses).

Stress will happen. What matters is our response to it and whether we mitigate its damage.

Most of this is laying the foundation for healthy brain function with the necessary nutrients, training inputs, sleep, and lifestyle factors—so you can take advantage of the brain’s natural plasticity.

But you still need to take action, try new things, and exercise that plasticity. What are some ideas?

Grease the groove.

Choose an exercise, like the pullup. Pretty much whenever you get a chance to do the movement, you do it. You might do five or six pullups every time you see the pullup bar, ten times a day perhaps (or more!). So by the end of the day you’ve done fifty to sixty pullups without having to grind any of the reps out. Each rep is crisp and clean, and you never go to failure.

You’re building new neuronal pathways for that movement when you perform it frequently without excess strain and stress.

Seek novelty.

Following the same routine everyday reduces the metabolic costs of experiencing and perceiving it. This is good for base survival, but it also means our brains aren’t working very hard. If you seek novelty—take a different path to work, try something new and maybe scary, visit a different part of town, try a new restaurant—you’ll be less efficient, but your brain will establish new pathways.

Humans are already novelty seekers, and for good reason: it’s how we learn, experience, and ultimately live most fully in the moment.

Learn an instrument.

Music training has profound effects on neuroplasticity.

Tackle a difficult—yet interesting—subject.

Do a deep dive into a subject that interests you. Read a book, take an online course, attend a class, go to a seminar, learn to code. Make sure it takes actual effort, but don’t let difficulty be the sole criterion. Engagement is just as important.

Learn a language.

There’s no better way to test and train your neuroplasticity than learning an entirely new form of communication.

Try psilocybin (when legal).

Research shows that psilocybin’s enhancement of neuroplasticity explains why it reduces depression and extinguishes conditioned fear. It also reduces reactivity (negative plasticity) in the amygdala and improves well being (positive plasticity).

It’s still illegal, but probably not for long. If you get the chance to try psilocybin or magic mushrooms, do so with an experienced guide or clinician.

Since neuroplasticity allows us to engage with, learn from, and experience the world around us, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of ways for us to activate it. I’ve missed most of them, but I know you guys have some suggestions.

So let’s hear ’em. How do you train your brain? What’s your favorite way to increase neuroplasticity?

Oh, and don’t worry. Neuroplasticity is BPA-free.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

 

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40 Comments on "16 Ways to Increase Neuroplasticity (and Why That’s Important)"

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Dave Den Bleyker
Dave Den Bleyker
4 months 26 days ago

Mark, Fantastic article! Thank you for your dedication to improve the human condition (for those that want to). Adequate SLEEP is essential for numerous reasons. While we may be able to condition ourselves to do with limited sleep for certain periods, there is always a price.

Anastasia
Anastasia
4 months 26 days ago

Yes! And if i remember correctly from Dr. Rhonda Patrick, lack of sleep accumulates amyloid beta plaques which cascade inflammation!
Also best to sleep with head on the side, most efficient flushing in the glymphatic system!
I wonder about these 5 hr sprightly pple…

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
4 months 26 days ago

Sign me up for the future Primal Psilocybin Health Coaching program. (I’ll make sure everyone uses a squatty potty too)

Harry Mossman
Harry Mossman
4 months 26 days ago
I do or have done most of those things. I have been on Primal for about 7 years. A couple years ago, I had an event that, according to my docs, was not a stroke nor seizure and did not seem to be a TIA. But it was like a stroke. Before it, my always poor handwriting had become nearly illegible, my speech was deteriorating, I was having many “senior moments” and loss of short-term memory. All of that cleared up after the “stroke.” I actually write and print better than at any time in my life. I think my… Read more »
Tricia
Tricia
4 months 26 days ago

Knitting! Aparently knitting regularly has profound effects on the brain, so that people who knit have all sorts of benefits, which I assume include increased neuroplasticity. It is also scalable – there is something new to learn all the time – as well as being relaxing through the repetitive movements. The only problem is the sitting – I need to learn to walk and knit at the same time.

Miranda
Miranda
1 month 26 days ago

I know a lady who puts her knitting in a backpack and walks the local track (the track and field 400 m loop) to avoid tripping hazards.

barry
barry
4 months 26 days ago

Can cannabis offer any cognitive abilities like shrooms can? If so I should be firing on all cylinders.

Rick
3 months 23 days ago

Cananbis works differently than shrooms or another psychedelics 🙂

Nocona
4 months 26 days ago

My amygdala (lizard brain) makes me crave insects. No crickets around my house.

Wejeto
4 months 26 days ago

Cricket protein powder is available on Amazon & cricket protein bars are available at Thrive Market. 😉

Elizabeth Resnick
4 months 26 days ago

Really interesting post! I’m doing a lot of this stuff already. Really want to start incorporating some sprinting into my life. And the sleep thing is always an issue for me. I wear my orange goggles, and a sleep mask really helps me get quality sleep. I just need to work on quantity!

2Rae
2Rae
4 months 26 days ago

I WANT adequate sleep. Working on solving that. Due to the stressed and exhausted adrenals I am not able to exercise much at this point. But, I am trying t learn a language, read a lot of complicated books.

Thanks for the info Mark!

Susan Grace
Susan Grace
4 months 26 days ago
I’m sorry that meditation is not mentioned, but magic mushrooms are. Meditation increases white matter in the brain (which influences efficiency of electrical signals in brain), and lessens shrinkage due to age. Meditation also has a positive influence on the preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity (when these shorten, we experience adverse aging effects). I would much rather do it the natural way (via meditation) than taking a chance with hallucigens. As Mark says, an experienced leader would be essential because we never know what kind of trip a person may go on… lots of submerged material may arise… Read more »
HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
4 months 26 days ago
Great item to add to the list Susan! I am anti recreational drug myself (in part because of a misspent youth), but *pharmaceutical grade* psilocybin might be one drug to consider. There are many accounts of folks (some of whom were spiritual leaders and very much into daily meditation) that reported the state-of-mind / bliss produced by psilocybin is like nothing else and cannot really be described. So, perhaps once or twice a year, under proper supervision, it might be something that could open doors even beyond a normal meditative state … and if you have put in all the… Read more »
Jayme
4 months 22 days ago

I am confused. How is it that meditation is natural, but mushrooms are not? How is it that dozens of civilizations for hundreds of years practiced all sorts of healing with “hallucigens” but now you call them “drugs”? Drugs are what Big Pharma creates and have 90% of our seniors on to alleviate symptoms. I think every human would rather be healed by natural foods, herbs, tinctures, oils, and real human care than a handful of synthetic drugs.

Time Traveler
Time Traveler
4 months 26 days ago

Great post. After going strong for so many years, I became a night owl again; that and stress are two things I need to bring into rein again. Otherwise, I can put a check mark next to the other items on the list. I also love pull ups, so I installed a chin up bar at the entrance to my home office. This way I can use it every time I exit and reenter.

Liana
Liana
4 months 26 days ago

I would add to the list – play games, solve puzzles, crosswords, sudoko. I like lumosity – a brain training app.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
4 months 26 days ago
Fascinating article Mark, thanks! I take magnesium threonate (and pyrroloquinoline quinone) and also a curcumin supplement daily, eat sardines and take fish oil capsules, program in several languages, do moderate and varied exercise 5 – 6 days a week. I have no musical ability, sleep habits are shaky, ability to control stress really sucks, need to work on all those big time. Now, if someone could just point me to the web site where I can buy pharmaceutical grade psilocybin … Things I might add … certain sports I think stimulate your brain. Just as one example, tennis is not… Read more »
Jayme
4 months 22 days ago

Hey Hombre, I know a couple ppl who have had real success with concentrated capsules containing Holy Basil….a real calmer. I was totally surprised to read all the historical uses for, and then finding 3 bottles at my local FredMeyers (Kroger) grocery of 536 mg caps Ocimum Sanctum which is the actual leaf extract, 60 softgels for $16. Yeah, Melatonin was marginal help for me…and tolerance buildup was instantaneous

Russell
4 months 26 days ago

Interesting how so many mention obtaining ‘pharmaceutical’ grade drugs when Big Pharma has demonstrated time & again how corrupt it is… just sayin’

Jack Lea Mason
4 months 24 days ago

Pharmaceutical grade simply refers to purity standards, USP. Pharaceutical grade potassium bicarbonate is of no interest to the pharmaceutical industry

Russell
4 months 24 days ago

I never heard of psilocybin made in a lab 🙁

Susan
Susan
4 months 26 days ago
Hi, I found out about And now am having Ketamine IV in a doctors office for depression… It is the same as the shrooms and it lifts me out of a depression within hours. I feel jet lag for a couple of days… But the anxiety and fear is gone, gone, gone. Studies say 70% of people are helped. http://www.ketamineadvocacynetwork.org/ It’s an anesthetic that has been around since the sixties, so big pharma won’t make any money of of it….probably why it isn’t discussed widely. The doc told me about BDNF, so I’ve started some of the suggestions on the… Read more »
Paul Otheim
Paul Otheim
4 months 26 days ago

Mark, thank you for another great article. In addition to several of the strategies you highlighted, I like to incorporate resets, et al. from Original Strength (crawling, etc.) which follow the early childhood developmental sequence based on studies in neuroplasticity and developing reflexive strength.

Lisabeth Robinson
4 months 26 days ago

Try doing things with your opposite hand. Brushing your teeth, stirring a pot, brushing your cat, eating, etc. Good for your brain and your ambidexterity.

Amanda
Amanda
4 months 25 days ago

Isn’t it wonderful how our brain works!
I’m right handed, and use my right hand for my pc mouse. Recently I’ve switched to my left hand. At first, it was tedious and slow, but it soon becomes easy, and eventually it will be just like my right hand.
I did this also for brushing my teeth, using the calculator and other basic things, all left handed. Silly I know, but it’s just one way I make myself perform differently.
Next I’m going to try handwriting with my left hand, should be intserentig… 😉

Jamie
4 months 25 days ago
I agree with the previous post on meditation – it really sorts me out and my thinking has changed dramatically since I started in 1998. ****NOTE – I also want to add a health warning on Alpha GPC. I took it about a year ago and it definitely increased my cognitive/memory functions but it had a side effect of giving me random panic attacks (something I had only ever experienced before from smoking pot in my youth). I stopped taking Alpha GPC – I would prefer to have lecithin, and egg yolks for my choline than Alpha GPC. Do a… Read more »
Borzoi
Borzoi
4 months 25 days ago
Seconding the effects of meditation. I’ve been depressed since childhood, and over the years took a number of different SSRIs. After reading Irving Kirsch’s book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, where I learned that SSRIs are glorified placebos that work no better than sugar pills, I weaned myself off but wasn’t sure what I was going to do about the depression. I didn’t start meditating for that reason, but I discovered that it eliminated my depression. It’s the safest, most effective and long-lasting treatment for depression I’ve found in my 64 years of life. And by the way…no co-pay. My full… Read more »
Kyle
4 months 25 days ago

Another great article. I guess one of the ways I try to train my brain is read articles from this website. Reading books on topics outside of my current scope of knowledge (i.e. finance and business) has been a way I’ve been improving neuroplasticity. I need to start trying new activities. Another thing I wanted to note was your point on “grease the groove.” Practicing a movement while keeping the reps crisp and fresh (and shy of failure) is an excellent suggestion.

Joshua Crosby
Joshua Crosby
4 months 25 days ago

So someone indulges in shrooms and increases their neuroplasticity. All other things being equal, does stopping the usage revert the gains or does the initial usage set a new baseline?

Nocona
4 months 25 days ago

N1 experiment…Try it and see. It was a new baseline for many folks.

Brad
Brad
4 months 25 days ago

I wonder about micro-doses of psilocybin. Enough to trigger the positive effects, without going all Castenada. I have no idea if that’s even possible.

Kelly
Kelly
4 months 25 days ago

Im surprised and very glad to see the psilocybin tip in here. You rock Mark! Thumbs up 🙂

Jamie Fellrath
4 months 25 days ago

This is a pretty complete list! One of the reasons I’m a big fan of obstacle course racing and adventure type racing is just how it makes you think while you’re doing it. Sounds like the combination of activities going on in a race also helps with neuroplasticity. Good to know I’m on the right track.

Hannah L Farrell
4 months 23 days ago

Dance! Has been shown to be useful for Alzheimer’s and brain function for elderly or people post stroke. Probably similar mechanisms as music with mind body connection. I know my years of classical ballet training has made it easy for me to pick up all sorts of different movement patterns since none will ever match ballet in terms of precision and body control (in my opinion)

Mike
4 months 23 days ago

MDA recommending psilobycin? Hell yeah.

Everyone should do mushrooms at least once in their life. And I’m not even “drugs are cool maaan” hippies.

Kris
4 months 22 days ago

Isn’t it interesting how we as a society so often look to drugs to fix our medical problems. Yet one of the major issues we face as an again population can be prevented (or at least mitigated) by exercise & nutrition. What a surprise (not really). Too bad the mainstream media doesn’t write an article like this or report on this one…

Jayme
4 months 22 days ago

And, has anyone here documented the value of the laughter involved when on small doses of shrooms? I can only offer personal experience of maybe 10-12 times, but my face and stomach hurt for days after LMAO. Extraordinary happiness subsequent to all experiences for months…

Meyer
3 months 20 days ago

Yes, these are the days most people are struggling to get the brain training to improve their neuroplasticity. But everyone must notice that it should work only who are going strongly. I hope people can get more valuable methods which are 16 ways to increase it.

Dustin
Dustin
3 months 12 days ago
Does taking an acting class have the same beneficial effects as learning to play a new instrument? Or is one more effective than the other? Also, when putting these principles to practice, is it recommended to try a daily does of ALL of these activities in one season of one’s life, or just to try a few of them at a time and progressively work into doing all of them? My concern is “brain workout” overload and inducing some kind of counterproductive stress by trying to take on too many new daily habits at once (for example, learning a new… Read more »
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