Recent research from the Salk Institute, Johns Hopkins, UC Irvine, and many other neuroscience research institutes, strongly supports the idea that physically, cognitively, and socially complex and challenging environments may have the power to actually heal neurological damage and stimulate brain change and growth. Such “enriched environments” have been shown to actually increase the size and improve the function of brains during controlled animal experiments. Neuroscientists are becoming more convinced that enriched environments have the same effect on humans.
William Greenough, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, suggests that this kind of enrichment include complex and demanding elements that compel learning and physical activity. Other research indicates that engaging social activity, play, and a healthy, varied diet are also critical components of an optimally enriched environment.
Researchers point to two primary mechanisms that they believe are activated by highly stimulating circumstances: the brain’s natural plasticity and its ability to generate new neurons; two remarkable mechanisms that scientists are only now beginning to understood. The mind-body connection may also be partially to credit for these effects, with physical activity and stimulation causing increased blood flow to the brain (chewing gum, for instance, has been shown to temporarily increase cerebral blood flow and task-related memory).
Even more surprisingly, enriched environments may be useful for treating everything from cocaine addiction to fetal alcohol syndrome to epilepsy. This new research may help us refine and focus enriched environment therapies for the treatment of specific conditions. These therapies may enable us to aggressively prevent, mitigate, and even heal neurological disorders once considered untreatable.