The Synapse Project: Engagement in mentally challenging activities enhances neural efficiency

Restor Neurol Neurosci. 2015;33(6):865-82. doi: 10.3233/RNN-150533.


Purpose: Correlational and limited experimental evidence suggests that an engaged lifestyle is associated with the maintenance of cognitive vitality in old age. However, the mechanisms underlying these engagement effects are poorly understood. We hypothesized that mental effort underlies engagement effects and used fMRI to examine the impact of high-challenge activities (digital photography and quilting) compared with low-challenge activities (socializing or performing low-challenge cognitive tasks) on neural function at pretest, posttest, and one year after the engagement program.

Methods: In the scanner, participants performed a semantic-classification task with two levels of difficulty to assess the modulation of brain activity in response to task demands.

Results: The High-Challenge group, but not the Low-Challenge group, showed increased modulation of brain activity in medial frontal, lateral temporal, and parietal cortex-regions associated with attention and semantic processing-some of which were maintained a year later. This increased modulation stemmed from decreases in brain activity during the easy condition for the High-Challenge group and was associated with time committed to the program, age, and cognition.

Conclusions: Sustained engagement in cognitively demanding activities facilitated cognition by increasing neural efficiency. Mentally-challenging activities may be neuroprotective and an important element to maintaining a healthy brain into late adulthood.

Keywords: Cognitive engagement; fMRI; intervention; learning; semantic processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Cognition Disorders / prevention & control
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Life Style*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Photography
  • Semantics
  • Social Behavior
  • Treatment Outcome