Although all cells in the body require energy to survive and function properly, excessive calorie intake over long time periods can compromise cell function and promote disorders such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and cancers. Accordingly, dietary restriction (DR; either caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, with maintained vitamin and mineral intake) can extend lifespan and can increase disease resistance. Recent studies have shown that DR can have profound effects on brain function and vulnerability to injury and disease. DR can protect neurons against degeneration in animal models of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases and stroke. Moreover, DR can stimulate the production of new neurons from stem cells (neurogenesis) and can enhance synaptic plasticity, which may increase the ability of the brain to resist aging and restore function following injury. Interestingly, increasing the time interval between meals can have beneficial effects on the brain and overall health of mice that are independent of cumulative calorie intake. The beneficial effects of DR, particularly those of intermittent fasting, appear to be the result of a cellular stress response that stimulates the production of proteins that enhance neuronal plasticity and resistance to oxidative and metabolic insults; they include neurotrophic factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), protein chaperones such as heat-shock proteins, and mitochondrial uncoupling proteins. Some beneficial effects of DR can be achieved by administering hormones that suppress appetite (leptin and ciliary neurotrophic factor) or by supplementing the diet with 2-deoxy-d-glucose, which may act as a calorie restriction mimetic. The profound influences of the quantity and timing of food intake on neuronal function and vulnerability to disease have revealed novel molecular and cellular mechanisms whereby diet affects the nervous system, and are leading to novel preventative and therapeutic approaches for neurodegenerative disorders.