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


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 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.


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.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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63 thoughts on “16 Ways to Increase Neuroplasticity (and Why That’s Important)”

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  1. 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.

    1. 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…

    2. Even if there is a price, at the end it is worth it. Sleep is the most important factor.

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

  3. 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 brain was reorganizing itself. My neighbor, who is a neuro-something doc, says it may have been a small stroke in a localized part of my brain that stimulated other parts of my brain to take over. He says he is doing something like that to patients.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

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

    1. Oh dear lord barry. 4 years later and this comment is killing me. It’s not even that funny, but here I am lol’ing. Maybe it’s because today is the first day of my microdosing journey? maybe

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

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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 and who knows what is in the psyche of a person. So research yourself the positive effects of meditation on the brain, aging and stress and put a dose of it into your daily life. Who knows, you might stumble upon enlightenment. Going the drug route has too many risks in my opinion.

    1. 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 hard work of meditating and training your mind you would be likely to reap even more benefits.

    2. 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.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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 only good exercise but you have to learn many different strokes / shots to do well, vary spin, speed, placement and it is very strategic. Playing challenging games like chess or bridge fires the synapses also.

    I did the popular brain training program for a while, but I think I just got better at playing the games, not sure it really improved my cognitive skills and got bored with it after a while. /dissertation

    1. 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

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

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

  13. 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. https://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 list. I’m going to use all of them.

    1. In 1999, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed ketamine as a Schedule III controlled substance (a depressant) pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act, which means it has a moderate to low abuse potential (lower than Schedules I and II), a currently accepted medical use, and a low to moderate potential for physical or psychological dependence. Ketamine makes its home on Schedule III alongside anabolic steroids and testosterone. According to the Feds, ketamine is safer than cannabis (which is a Schedule I controlled substance).

      So, how does one lawfully open and operate a ketamine clinic for infusion therapy given the foregoing?
      First, ketamine infusion therapy is an off-label use for ketamine in the U.S. “Off-label use” (which is extremely common) is:

      the use of pharmaceutical drugs for an unapproved indication or in an unapproved age group, dosage, or route of administration. Both prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs (OTCs) can be used in off-label ways, although most studies of off-label use focus on prescription drugs.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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… 😉

  17. 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 Google search on Alpha GPC and anxiety and you will see I wasn’t alone with the side effects!

  18. 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 approach to treating depression is three-pronged: meditation, exercise and 8 oz. a day of black coffee (my one and only drug).

  19. 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.

  20. 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?

  21. 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.

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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)

  25. 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.

  26. 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…

  27. 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…

    1. 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.

  28. 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 language and learning to play an instrument, and also researching/learning a new topic of interest daily.

    I’m currently 3 weeks in to intermittent fasting along with working out and reading first thing in the morning – my current interest and pursuit of this topic stems from a recent self-acceptance of some destructive addictions in my life and a desire to make changes and produce healthier living, happiness, and behaviors.

    fortunately I’m in a season of life where I have a lot of spare time daily to invest in my recovery as far as daily activities (I have a seasonal career job where I have 3 or 4 months off before having to be back to work full time – I want to build up a stronger brain in this “off season” so that by the time I go back to work I am twice as happy and productive as last season)

    Great informative article by the way, I found this website from listening to the podcast!!!

  29. Except for learning an instrument or a language I’ ve read that videogames offer a good base for agility as the press gamers figure out solutions and concentrate.

  30. I agree with you that neuroplasticity is most essential for the proper function of our brain and I believe that in the future, as the life expectancy will grow and our brains will be inundated with stimuli and information, getting to know how to maintain our brain in functional status will be the best gift of self improvement

  31. I don’t know about magic mushrooms, I tried one once and had a very bad reaction, so I think you have to be careful with that.

  32. Fitness is very important to every one. when your young age you have to maintain fitness. then only you look like men. even woman’s also required fitness. i always believe if you fit, your work also fit.

  33. the ideas are great. Thanks for helping me. I tried some of the ways and I improved in my academic domain.

  34. There’s a study done by Brazilian researchers that concluded that CBD oil found in cannabis is helpful in promoting neuroplasticity.

  35. I suffered a stroke 14 months agoand was paralysed on my left side, although I have regained most of
    the use of my left hand again. The problem lies with my left leg, and I feel I need to do more exercises to regain some strength and mobility, also mental work to improve neuroplsticity
    Could you give me some guide lines

    1. Try reading “the brain that changes itself”One story was a guy who had a stroke and his son made him start from scratch-crawling-leaning against a wall.To start and then move on from there

  36. I beg to differ about the sleep factor. I find, and many studies have shown, sleep deprivation actually temporarily relieves depression. I was just awake for 37 hours, and after about 30 hours, my depression was gone! Temporarliy. I didn’t even realize how depressed I was until it lifted from me. Now I crave the good feelings.

  37. For many years, I have practised doing things with my non-dominant hand, to increase neuroplasticity. Such as stirring coffee, beating eggs, using scissors, etc. Though I do have trouble cleaning my teeth left-handed!
    I enjoy activities that use both hands, like driving and knitting. I can draw and write passably with my non-dominant hand – I used to swap hands to continue the crossword while breastfeeding on the other side.
    I also go barefoot as often as possible, since a friend with Parkinsons had this recommended by their neurologist.

  38. Not to be a bummer, but 3 yrs ago, my brother’s Oncologist told me I should seriously consider the Keto diet, ASAP. ( He passed on with stage 4 brain cancer).
    Jan 1, 2021 I came to my senses. Read your book from library, bought your book at Natural Grocers & started learning to Fast! And started the Keto diet Jan 2nd. 11 days ago. I’m excited! I love the change. It’s like learning a new language. Thanks, Cherrie Richardson

  39. Immmmm mine mind seam to not to take nothing in to stay to remind not learning at all it’s been striken by the evil one Satan’s empire and 250 mental disease lm in lack of everything in my very life it’s brought me a lot illness famine calamities poverty lm busted up in all ways I can’t feel wellbeing but keep on and my life …..so on thanks