The remarkable increase in human life expectancy over the past century has been achieved at the expense of the risk of age-related impairment and disease. Neurodegeneration, be it part of normal aging or due to neurodegenerative disorders, is characterized by loss of specific neuronal populations, leading to increasing clinical impairment. The individual course may be described as balance between aging- or disease-related pathology and intrinsic mechanisms of adaptation. There is plenty of evidence that the human brain is provided with exhaustible resources to maintain function in the face of adverse conditions. While a reserve concept has mainly been coined in cognitive neuroscience, emerging evidence suggests similar mechanisms to underlie individual differences of adaptive capacity within the motor system.

In this narrative review, we summarize what has been proposed to date about a motor reserve (mR) framework. We present current evidence from research in aging subjects and people with neurological conditions, followed by a description of what is known about potential neuronal substrates of mR so far. As there is no gold standard of mR quantification, we outline current approaches which describe various indicators of mR. We conclude by sketching out potential future directions of research.

Expediting our understanding of differences in individual motor resilience towards aging and disease will eventually contribute to new, individually tailored therapeutic strategies. Provided early diagnosis, enhancing the individual mR may be suited to postpone disease onset by years and may be an efficacious contribution towards healthy aging, with an increased quality of life for the elderly.