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Keywords:

  • brain disorders;
  • cognitive activity;
  • enriched environments;
  • neurological diseases;
  • physical exercise;
  • psychiatric disorders

Environmental enrichment (EE) increases levels of novelty and complexity, inducing enhanced sensory, cognitive and motor stimulation. In wild-type rodents, EE has been found to have a range of effects, such as enhancing experience-dependent cellular plasticity and cognitive performance, relative to standard-housed controls. Whilst environmental enrichment is of course a relative term, dependent on the nature of control environmental conditions, epidemiological studies suggest that EE has direct clinical relevance to a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders. EE has been demonstrated to induce beneficial effects in animal models of a wide variety of brain disorders. The first evidence of beneficial effects of EE in a genetically targeted animal model was generated using Huntington's disease transgenic mice. Subsequent studies found that EE was also therapeutic in mouse models of Alzheimer's disease, consistent with epidemiological studies of relevant environmental modifiers. EE has also been found to ameliorate behavioural, cellular and molecular deficits in animal models of various neurological and psychiatric disorders, including Parkinson's disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, depression, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. This review will focus on the effects of EE observed in animal models of neurodegenerative brain diseases, at molecular, cellular and behavioural levels. The proposal that EE may act synergistically with other approaches, such as drug and cell therapies, to facilitate brain repair will be discussed. I will also discuss the therapeutic potential of ‘enviromimetics’, drugs which mimic or enhance the therapeutic effects of cognitive activity and physical exercise, for both neuroprotection and brain repair.