Many people routinely go to the gym or go for a run to keep fit, but what about their mental health? More and more young and old are concerned about staying mentally active by using some form of cognitive stimulation to improve their attention, concentration or memory.

Cognitive stimulation is also being used as a tool to prevent cognitive decline, and as a cognitive rehabilitation for cognitive impairment. In this entry we will see a summary of what cognitive stimulation is, where and how it is applied, what benefits it has and what the most common techniques are.

What is cognitive stimulation?

When one looks for information about cognitive stimulation techniques, related concepts such as brain training, brain gym, mental gym, or cognitive rehabilitation, among others, appear, which generates a lot of confusion at first. But… what is each thing and what is it for?

Let’s start from the beginning, cognitive stimulation is a set of techniques and strategies that aim to improve performance and efficiency in the functioning of cognitive abilities such as memory, attention or perception, among others.

Cognitive stimulation acts on those abilities and skills that are still preserved through activities and programs that promote their improvement and enhancement by mechanisms of brain neuroplasticity.

Depending on the type of person to whom it is directed and the objective to be achieved with cognitive stimulation, we can frame all the tools in two main types.

What is cognitive training?

Cognitive training is a set of techniques and activities aimed at stimulating and maintaining cognitive functioning, or maximizing cognitive performance, always acting on those abilities and skills that are still at a normal level.

This set includes other more commercial terms such as mental gym, brain gym or mental fitness, among others. The most typical user example would be an older person who has some cognitive decline due to normal aging and wants to maintain a good cognitive level; or a student or elite athlete who wants to have maximum cognitive performance in his professional activity.

What is cognitive rehabilitation?

Cognitive rehabilitation includes those activities of cognitive stimulation that aim to recover cognitive capacity, always acting on those capacities and abilities that are impaired usually due to a mental illness or pathology.

The example of a user would be a person with mild cognitive impairment and the beginning of some type of dementia, or with major depression who is suffering from cognitive impairment. Cognitive rehabilitation is usually part of neuropsychological rehabilitation.

On many occasions these three concepts (stimulation, training or rehabilitation) are used interchangeably. However, cognitive stimulation covers all techniques in a general way.

In particular, cognitive training is aimed at strengthening and enhancing the cognitive functions that are preserved. However, cognitive rehabilitation is aimed at improving and recovering those capacities that have been affected and that present a decline or deficit in their functioning. In both cases, brain neuroplasticity is considered to be the biological basis for improvement.

What is cognitive stimulation for?

In the case that the person does not present a cognitive impairment associated with a disease, the objective of cognitive stimulation (cognitive training) is to achieve the stimulation, improvement and optimal functioning of the important cognitive abilities for the day-to-day life of the person.

In this line, the aim is to delay as much as possible the appearance of the first symptoms of cognitive impairment, helping to improve well-being and quality of life.

The achievement of this general objective can favour the attainment of more specific goals, achieving an improvement in well-being and personal autonomy, self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as the acquisition of skills necessary to satisfactorily face situations of stress and emotional imbalance.

In the event that the person presents cognitive impairment, the main objective of cognitive stimulation (cognitive rehabilitation) will be the recovery and restoration of the altered functions. In this way, the deterioration will be slowed down and a greater functional autonomy will be achieved for a longer period of time.

This makes it possible to postpone the supervision of those affected in the performance of daily life activities, a difficulty that ends up manifesting itself in serious states of cognitive impairment. Moreover, this type of cognitive rehabilitation is usually integrated into broader programs that also address the disease at the origin of the deterioration.

It is important to point out that cognitive stimulation can be included within non-pharmacological therapies for multiple mental pathologies with cognitive impairment. Among its advantages is the reduction of side effects derived from medication, and the strengthening of other skills such as social skills and relationships by facilitating interpersonal contacts.

What is the neurobiological basis of cognitive stimulation?

Cognitive stimulation has a neurobiological basis that supports its usefulness as a tool to improve and rehabilitate different cognitive abilities. To understand these neurobiological substrates it is important to know some related concepts. Let us briefly look at the two most important ones, neuroplasticity and brain reserve.

Firstly, brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, understood, as the ability of the nervous system to change its structure and function throughout life as a reaction to the diversity of the environment.

In other words, brain plasticity allows the brain, and more specifically its neurons, to carry out a process of both functional and anatomical regeneration by establishing new synaptic connections.

The aim of cognitive stimulation or training is to increase the number and consolidation of these connections in order to obtain an improvement in brain functioning in terms of the speed and efficiency of information transmission.

The brain reserve is the capacity that the brain has to tolerate injuries. By increasing the brain’s reserve, the symptoms of cognitive deficits delay their expression and, therefore, it could be said that the cognitive reserve is maintained or even improved.

Techniques such as cognitive stimulation, personal experiences such as education, lifestyle or physical and mental activity, as well as changes at the neurobiological level influence its development and evolution.

Can I apply the same cognitive stimulation to each “brain”?

No, because each brain is different, and therefore any intervention related to mental health and well-being, as well as cognitive stimulation techniques and programs, must always be adapted to each particular case. If the techniques and programs are not adapted to the functional capacities of each brain, there is a risk that they will either not work or have a suboptimal impact on the user or patient.

The plastic mechanisms of the brain are associated with age, and although all brains appear to be similar, their basic structure changes and makes them different from each other.

Therefore, knowing the specific characteristics of each brain is fundamental to understanding how the development and evolution of cognitive abilities occur throughout all life cycles. All humans are different and it is important to know these differences when designing any intervention.