Neuroscience of Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is the stimulation of the brain by its physical and social surroundings. Brains in richer, more stimulating environments have higher rates of synaptogenesis and more complex dendrite arbors, leading to increased brain activity. This effect takes place primarily during neurodevelopment, but also during adulthood to a lesser degree. With extra synapses there is also increased synapse activity, leading to increased size and number of glial energy-support cells. Environmental enrichment also enhances capillary vasculature, providing the neurons and glial cells with extra energy. The neuropil (neurons, glial cells, capillaries, combined together) expands, thickening the cortex. Research on rodent brains suggests that environmental enrichment may also lead to an increased rate of neurogenesis.

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Research on animals finds that environmental enrichment could aid the treatment and recovery of numerous brain-related dysfunctions, including Alzheimer’s disease and those connected to aging, whereas a lack of stimulation might impair cognitive development. Moreover, this research also suggests that environmental enrichment leads to a greater level of cognitive reserve, the brain’s resilience to the effects of conditions such as aging and dementia.

Research on humans suggests that lack of stimulation delays and impairs cognitive development. Research also finds that attaining and engaging in higher levels of education, environments in which people participate in more challenging cognitively stimulating activities, results in greater cognitive reserve.

Behavioral enrichment is an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. Enrichment can either be active or passive, depending on whether it requires direct contact between the animal and the enrichment. A variety of enrichment techniques are used to create desired outcomes similar to an animal’s individual and species’ history. Each of the techniques used are intended to stimulate the animal’s senses similarly to how they would be activated in the wild. Provided enrichment may be seen in the form of auditory, olfactory, habitat factors, food, research projects, training, and objects.

Although environmental enrichment can provide sensory and social stimulations, it can also have limited efficacy if not changed frequently. Animals can become habituated to environmental enrichments, showing positive behaviors at the onset of exposure and progressively declining with time. Environmental enrichments are effective primarily because it offers novelty stimuli, making the animal’s daily routines less predictable, as would be in the wild. Therefore, maintaining novelty is important for the efficacy of enrichment. Frequently changing the type of environmental enrichment will help prevent habituation.