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Cognitive Reserve

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Dave Moursund


A human brain is subject to many different types of injuries that damage its capabilities. This IAE Blog entry discusses cognitive reserve—a brain characteristic that can help in recovering from traumatic brain injuries. It draws heavily on information given in “Brain Injuries and Cognitive Reserve,” one of 37 topics covered in the IAE-pedia entry “Brain Science.

Concussions are a common type of traumatic brain injury. Jon Hamilton (4/23/2014) discusses how knowing the level of one’s educational achievement can provide useful information about how quickly and well a person may recover from a concussion. Quoting from Hamilton:

A little education goes a long way toward ensuring you'll recover from a serious traumatic brain injury. In fact, people with lots of education are seven times more likely than high school dropouts to have no measurable disability a year later.

"It's a very dramatic difference," says Eric Schneider, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of a new study. The finding suggests that people with more education have brains that are better able to "find ways around the damage" caused by an injury, he says.

One reason for the difference may be something known as "cognitive reserve" in the brain, Schneider says. The concept is a bit like physical fitness, he says, which can help a person recover from a physical injury. Similarly, a person with a lot of cognitive reserve may be better equipped to recover from a brain injury. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Maureen Salamon (4/24/2014) provides additional information about how education helps a patient with a traumatic brain injury. Quoting from her article:

"I'm not sure we can quite say you should stay in school based on this study alone. But if one looks at the dementia literature, maintaining the health of your brain by being actively involved in your life is important," said study author Eric Schneider, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The terms brain reserve and cognitive reserve are sometimes used interchangeably, but actually refer to different aspects of a brain’s capabilities that are available in dealing with traumatic brain injury. Brain reserve refers to the physical brain, with brains differing in overall number of healthy cells. Cognitive reserve refers to the knowledge and skills stored in a brain.

We can use the analogy that brain reserve is hardware, while cognitive reserve is software. The hardware in a modern computer can be designed to be somewhat fault tolerant. This means that the computer system can detect and stop using damaged circuits. The software in a computer system can be improved over time and backups of software provide a type of protection against damage by malware (malicious software).

Cognitive reserve is an important aid to patients of all ages who have suffered or are suffering a traumatic brain injury. An article by Tucker and Stern (6/1/2011) summarizes some of the research on cognitive reserve. Quoting from their research paper:

Cognitive reserve explains why those with higher IQ, education, occupational attainment, or participation in leisure activities evidence less severe clinical or cognitive changes in the presence of age-related or Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Specifically, the cognitive reserve hypothesis is that individual differences in how tasks are processed provide reserve against brain pathology. Cognitive reserve may allow for more flexible strategy usage, an ability thought to be captured by executive functions tasks. Additionally, cognitive reserve allows individuals greater neural efficiency, greater neural capacity, and the ability for compensation via the recruitment of additional brain regions.

There are two kinds of reserve that have been reported to make independent and interactive contributions to preserving functioning in the face of brain injury: brain reserve and cognitive reserve. Brain reserve refers to quantitative measures such as brain size or neuronal count. Those with more brain reserve tend to have better clinical outcomes for any given level of pathology.

Cognitive reserve, by contrast, refers to how flexibly and efficiently one can make use of available brain reserve. Standard proxies for cognitive reserve include education and IQ although this has expanded to include literacy, occupational attainment, engagement in leisure activities, and the integrity of social networks [38, 39]. 

Holographic Memory

Karl Pribram (Pribram and Goleman, n.d.) is a neurosurgeon psychologist at Stanford University. In his current research, he explores the idea that the way information is stored in a human brain is somewhat analogous to how information is stored in a hologram. I believe his insights help to explain cognitive reserve. Quoting from the reference:

Pribram proposes nothing less than a new scientific paradigm for studying mental processes, a hypothesis that could explain some of the classical paradoxes of brain function as well as some paranormal and transcendental experiences. The Stanford scientist believes the brain operates according to the same mathematical principles as a hologram.

Brain researchers seem to agree that memory is a result of biochemical changes in the brain and is stored in individual cells to be recalled when electrochemically activated. What Pribram's theory purports to explain is why traces of the same memory have been proven to exist in more than one area or part of the brain, or how memory comes to be distributed through the brain.

He argues that the process is the same as the mathematical transformation that occurs when a three-dimensional image is projected into space in holography.

Experiments had been done showing that just 2 percent of the fibers in a particular system would retain that system's functions. There's an amazing amount of redundancy in the brain. Imagine if 98 percent of your kidneys were gone, but the other 2 percent worked so well you couldn't d anything wrong at all. The brain’s spare reserve for memory is fantastic.

Final Remarks

There is ample research evidence to support the assertion that education and life experiences build a cognitive reserve that somehow or other aids the brain in recovery from traumatic brain injuries. It is a challenging research question to determine how/why this occurs. Pribram’s theories about a holographic brain are still a theory—accepted by some, rejected by others, and still open to further research. This provides a good example of how research scientists tackle a really challenging problem.

What You Can Do

You, personally, have a certain level of cognitive reserve that you have built over the years. Keep on building! Discuss the idea of cognitive reserve with your colleagues and students. Many will find this an interesting topic. Moreover, by thinking about and studying the topic they will help to build their own cognitive reserve.




Hamilton, J. (4/23/2014). “Education may help insulate the brain against traumatic injury.” NPR. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Pribram, K., interviewed by G. Goleman (n.d.). The holographic brain: The science behind SyberVision’s modeling technology. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Salamon, M. (4/24/2014). “People with more education may recover better from brain injury.” CBS News. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Tucker, A., and Stern, Y. (6/1/2011). “Cognitive reserve in aging.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (2010). “Mind and body connection.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Moursund, D. (11/14/2010). “Research on how exercise improves brain functioning.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/28/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/6/2010). “Neuromythologies (brain science mythologies) in education.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from

Moursund, D. (April, 2014). “Brain science.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/26/2014 from

Seaman, A.M. (8/11/2014). Regardless of location, concussions serious: study. Reuters. Retrieved 8/13/2014 from Regardless of location, concussions serious: study. Quoting from the study:

About 45 percent of concussions were caused by hits to the front of the head. The second most common hit to cause concussions was to the side of the head, followed by back of the head and finally the top of the head.

About five to six concussions occur among high school football players per 10,000 games or practices, they add.

Regardless of where on the head the players were hit, their symptoms were similar, as were the length of time symptoms lasted and how long players stayed off the field, researchers found.


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