The Science

Harnessing the Potential of Reserves

Marie Stoner M.Ed., Clinical Psychologist & Chief Science Officer, Activate Brain and Body Holdings, Inc.

In the late 1980s, a Columbia University researcher named Yaakov Stern proposed the concept of Cognitive Reserve to explain how some people cope better than others with the same amount of damage to the brain. Stern reported on brain autopsies of normally functioning older people, showing 25% of elders whose neuropsychological testing was unimpaired prior to death met full pathological criteria for Alzheimer’s disease, meaning their brains had significant plaques and tangles. As drug companies have discovered after billions of dollars of failed research, it’s not just about the plaques and tangles.

The modern concept of Cognitive Reserve refers to the strength and/or more flexibility of neural networks that have the potential to explain the difference in individual susceptibility to decline, whether from aging or disease. With Cognitive Reserve, the brain can withstand more damage before crossing the line of functional impairment to clinical diagnosis. The personal and societal implications of Cognitive Reserve are enormous. Everyone wants to stay as functional as possible for as long as possible. And families want as much extra time with their loved ones as possible. For society, even a 1-year delay in symptom onset would result in 11.8 million fewer diagnoses worldwide by 2050.


Every day, through a process called neurogenesis, thousands of new neurons are produced in the hippocampus, which is the brain structure central to memory and learning. However, up to half of these neurons will die in 1-2 weeks if they are not nurtured, stimulated, and brought into networks. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this shaping of the brain; the flow of neurons, their connection to networks, and the strengthening of those networks. It is this dynamic process that builds Cognitive Reserve. Fortunately, this process is extremely responsive to forces in the environment including lifestyle behaviors, so individuals can play an active role in their cognitive destiny.

Physical activity, mental engagement, and diet have been extensively researched, and the effects of positive and negative lifestyle on brain health are established, even for the extreme case of AD. “Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. “Studies suggest that they have 35–40% less risk of manifesting the disease.…Even late-stage interventions hold promise to boost cognitive reserve and thus reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related problems”. (Stern)


The brain is shaped by experience, and physical activity is the most documented and powerful driver of positive neuroplasticity. An evolutionary neuroscience explanation for this enhanced linkage between physical activity and expanded brain function goes back two million years when we came out of the forests, where we led a relatively sedentary lifestyle, to a hunting and gathering lifestyle. This new lifestyle paired high levels of physical activity with increased cognitive demands for motor control, memory, spatial navigation, and executive functions. We evolved to be running thinkers, and increased brain capacity was paired with increased physical activity.
Aerobic exercise concentrates its benefit in the hippocampus by triggering the release of a growth factor called BDNF that results in increased neurogenesis. Aerobic exercise also supports the growth of new blood vessels in the brain. Both have been linked to enhancing memory and learning networks.
There is evidence that Resistance (strength) training activates an additional growth hormone (IGF-1) that promotes neuronal survival and differentiation and supports other cognitive networks (executive function and working memory). The bath of these neurochemicals helps to bring neurons into networks and is an argument for an exercise program that includes both aerobic and resistance training.
Physical activity isn’t the only way to spark neuroplasticity. As the descendants of runners who think and decide, our brains are also primed to respond to novel stimuli and cognitively challenging activities. The mechanism for this is still being worked out, but large group studies of various cognitive training interventions have shown improvements in attention, processing speed, memory, and even driving. One physical change reported from brain scans has been an increase in white matter, which points to stronger network connections (bigger highways).
Animal studies suggest that physical exercise facilitates neuroplasticity and cognitive exercise guides it. And the theory is that the new cells are most engaged when there is a cognitive challenge, especially a novel one, so there is an additive effect when they are combined. This has led to current interest in programs that combine physical and cognitive exercise. Clinical trials with adults comparing physical and cognitive exercise alone with a protocol that combines the two (dual-task training) show better results for the combo programs. In one study of 96 older adults (65-70), the group combining physical and cognitive improved more quickly than the single treatment groups.

Brain Reserves

Cognitive Reserve doesn’t work alone to provide protection for the brain; it depends on a healthy brain. This is often referred to as Brain Reserve. While Cognitive Reserve focuses on maintaining and strengthening cognitive processes, Brain Reserve refers to the differences in the underlying health of the brain structures. The hardware needs to be working for the software to run. A healthy, mostly Mediterranean-type diet, stress management, good sleep, and managing hypertension are some of the key lifestyle choices that can keep the brain structurally healthy.


The science for building Cognitive Reserve and Brain Reserve is evolving. The right kind of physical activity with targeted cognitive stimulation, socialization, and stress reactivity training can have a profound effect on how the brain handles decline. At Activate, our programming utilizes the most cutting-edge science to support and optimize Brain Reserve and build Cognitive Reserve. A key part of the member experience is The Cognitive Circuit ™, a proprietary science-based workout designed for maximal results.

Physical Exercise

Physical Exercise has positive effects on the anatomy, physiology and function of your brain. It can increase the size of the brain, especially in the hippocampus (the memory center), reduce the number and size of age-related holes in grey matter and slow and even halt degeneration in brain areas particularly those vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.

Cognitive Stimulation

Physical Exercise has positive effects on the anatomy, physiology and function of your brain. It can increase the size of the brain, especially in the hippocampus (the memory center), reduce the number and size of age-related holes in grey matter and slow and even halt degeneration in brain areas particularly those vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress Management

Some stress is beneficial in our daily lives, such as energizing us before a big presentation. However, most of us have trouble regulating this stress response and could benefit from better managing stress through breathing, meditation and some specific workouts.


What you put into your body can also impact how your brain functions. At Activate, we suggest the MIND Diet for our Members – it focuses on consuming more foods found in 10 brain healthy food groups (e.g., such as fish, vegetables, and nuts) and fewer foods found in 5 unhealthy food groups (e.g., red meat and fried foods).


Engaging with others helps keep your brain sharp, can improve cognitive function, and, according to a 2017 study, can even help lower the risk of dementia. Activate is a community of Members – a place where you can stay engaged with others who are working towards a Better Brain, Better Body; a place where you can gather for a cooking lesson or an educational seminar.