Reynolds points to some fascinating work by Justin Rhodes that upends previous assumptions about the importance of a rich environment leading to increased brain power (in mice). Apparently physical exercise alone is the sine qua non. Rhodes:
...gathered four groups of mice and set them into four distinct living arrangements. One group lived in a world of sensual and gustatory plenty, dining on nuts, fruits and cheeses, their food occasionally dusted with cinnamon, all of it washed down with variously flavored waters. Their “beds” were colorful plastic igloos occupying one corner of the cage. Neon-hued balls, plastic tunnels, nibble-able blocks, mirrors and seesaws filled other parts of the cage. Group 2 had access to all of these pleasures, plus they had small disc-shaped running wheels in their cages. A third group’s cages held no embellishments, and they received standard, dull kibble. And the fourth group’s homes contained the running wheels but no other toys or treats. All the animals completed a series of cognitive tests at the start of the study and were injected with a substance that allows scientists to track changes in their brain structures. Then they ran, played or, if their environment was unenriched, lolled about in their cages for several months. Afterward, Rhodes’s team put the mice through the same cognitive tests and examined brain tissues. It turned out that the toys and tastes, no matter how stimulating, had not improved the animals’ brains...Animals that didn’t run, no matter how enriched their world was otherwise, did not improve their brainpower in complex, lasting ways...Both human and animal studies have shown that exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor, or B.D.N.F., that stimulates growth of the hippocampus as well as some other brain areas, and also improves performance on cognitive tests.
We're talking mice, not humans, and studies on human children and adults continue to suggest that mental exercises like the n-back test to enhance working memory that I've mentioned in several posts can increase fluid intelligence in a long term, but still reversible, way (use it or loose it.)