Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that works in the central and peripheral nervous system to promote nerve function and growth. It works in the neurons of the brain both in forming neurons and in long-term memory formation. BDNF also is involved in neurotransmitter response to dopamine[ref] and serotonin transport.[ref] It is also involved in neural plasticity and recovery after brain injury.[ref] Basically, it’s very important at a lot of levels for good brain and nervous system function.

Genetic variants can change the amount of BDNF that your body normally makes.  These variants have been tied to a number of brain and nervous system related issues.  For example, resilience to stress and introversion have been tied in with BDNF variants. Obesity risk is also increased for certain variants.

While genetics plays a role in your baseline BDNF production, environmental factors such as food, exercise, and sleep also play a big role in BDNF. If you are a carrier of a genetic variant that puts you at risk for a BDNF related disease, be sure to read through the “Lifehacks” for ways to mitigate the effects of these variants.

BDNF Genetic variants:

Check your 23andMe results for rs6265 (v4, v5):

  • TT: introversion, resilient to adverse events, quicker decline in Alz., more likely to be overweight[ref][ref][ref]
  • CT: introversion, resilient to adverse events, quicker decline in Alz
  • CC: normal BDNF

By far the most well-studied BDFN variant, the rs6265 (Val66Met) variant causes a less efficient form and decreased secretion of BDNF.[ref] Other studies on rs6265 have found the T allele linked to depression in alcoholism[ref] and cognitive impairment in insomnia[ref], but it is also linked to resilience from childhood trauma[ref]. There are ethnic differences involved in the results of some studies on this variant. For example, Caucasian carriers of the T allele were found to be at a 96% increased risk of suicide attempts, while for Asian populations the C allele was linked to an increased risk of suicide.[ref] Do a search on rs6265 or BDNF Val66Met if you are interested in learning more about this variant (1,000+ studies!).


Check your 23andMe results for rs11030101 (v4 only):

  • TT: decreased risk of asthma[ref], associated with ADHD in girls[ref]
  • AT: decreased risk of asthma, less likely to benefit from electroconvulsive therapy[ref]
  • AA: normal

Check your 23andMe results for rs7103411 (v4, v5):

  • CC: increased impulsivity in children (minor)[ref], better response to antidepressants for melancholic depression[ref]
  • CT: increased impulsivity in children (minor)
  • TT: normal


Even if you are genetically pre-disposed to lower or altered BDNF levels, you can still affect BDNF levels significantly. Carrying the variants above just makes optimizing BDNF production that much more important!

Bacopa increases BDNF expression when given chronically. [ref] Bacopa is an herbal supplement that has been used for thousands of years in India.  It is known for its effect on memory and cognition.

Curcumin reverses the decrease in BDNF levels that come from chronic stress.[ref]  You can take curcumin as a supplement or get it in turmeric.

Exercise – even a single bout – increases BDNF levels in the hippocampus.[ref][ref]  This is probably a factor in how exercise decreases depressive symptoms.

Good quality sleep boost BDNF. Sleep is the mediator between stress and BDNF levels.[ref]

Stress decreases BDNF levels.[ref] We all know that stress isn’t good for us, so here is one more reason why you should avoid it. While easier said than done, there are tried and true methods for reducing stress including exercising (go for a walk in the sunshine!) and sleeping well.


Categories: Neurotransmitters

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