The best treatment for memory loss and dementia may not come from a medicine bottle, but from within the brain itself. New research on neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to build new neural pathways— suggests that regularly challenging the brain with new input can prevent and possibly reverse cognitive decline.

Research reported by the American Academy of Neurology and the Journal of Clinical Psychology, among others, on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment focuses on developing drugs to target abnormalities in the brain. But according to studies reported by the Journal of Gerontological Nursing, the National Academy of Sciences and the National institutes for Health, the brain has a powerful capacity to heal and rebuild itself throughout life by creating new neural pathways. 

Challenging the Brain Builds Memory

Learning a new skill depends on repetition. Doing a new thing often enough makes it habitual. That’s a simple example of neuroplasticity in action. When presented with something unfamiliar, our brains respond by creating new connections. Over time, those pathways become strong and we’re able to perform that skill without much conscious thought.

Similarly, neural pathways can atrophy without stimulation. That creates conditions for “negative neuroplasticity,” which happens when the brain gets little by way of new stimuli. According to a recent paper from the Journal of Gerontological Nursing on the implications of neuroplasticity research on aging, people who get little social interaction and keep to the same routines year after year may be more likely to experience cognitive decline than those who are constantly learning, trying new things and visiting new places.

Keeping the brain working to build new pathways doesn’t require special equipment or heavy investments of time and money. As a recent article on brain plasticity from Scientific American points out, opportunities to challenge the brain with novelty are everywhere in daily life, starting with simple changes in everyday routines. The key is to introduce newness whenever possible.

Brain Challenges Anyone Can Do

Start by doing regular daily activities with your non-dominant hand. If you’re a righty, try combing your hair, eating or brushing your teeth left-handed—or vice versa. Writing and drawing are among the most challenging non-dominant hand activities to try, since they engage functions of both brain hemispheres as well as eye-hand coordination..

Learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. Learning a new language, taking music lessons or even solving a complex puzzle will challenge the brain with new stimuli. These kinds of activities can also encourage social connections, which keep verbal skills sharp.

Visit someplace new—or take a new route to someplace you usually go. An often-quoted study conducted by researchers at the University College of London revealed that MRI scans of the brains of London cab drivers showed more complex neural pathways than those of bus drivers who drove the same routes every day.

The brain is a complex and powerful organ, and many of its abilities are still unknown. But as today’s research on neuroplasticity reveals, the key to keeping memory strong may lie in picking up a new skill—not a new prescription.