Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that works in the central and peripheral nervous systems to promote nerve function and growth. It also works in the neurons of the brain both in forming neurons and in long-term memory formation.
What is BDNF?
BDNF stands for a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It is a type of protein called a neurotrophin. BDNF works in several ways:
- BDNF encourages new neuronal growth from stem cells
- it protects neurons from injury and cell death
- it improves neuronal function (important in learning and mood)
As a protein that is essential for neuronal growth, BDNF is vital for neural plasticity and recovery after brain injury.[ref]
Essentially, BDNF is important for good cognition and nervous system function. You want plenty of BDNF to help your neurotransmitters function well.
Can genetic variants cause lower BDNF levels?
Genetic variants can decrease 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, introversion and an increased risk of depression 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, lifestyle factors such as food, exercise, and sleep also play a big role in BDNF. Fortunately, there are ways to increase BDNF and mitigate the problems associated with the BDNF gene variants. (Lifehacks section below)
Studies on BDNF levels:
- Chronic stress causes a decrease in BDNF.[ref]
- Low BDNF is linked to Alzheimer’s disease[ref] and Parkinson’s[ref][ref]
- People with depression usually have lower levels of BDNF.[ref][ref][ref]
- Mothers with postpartum or during pregnancy depression have low BDNF[ref], and older people with depression also have low BDNF.[ref]
- Low BDNF is linked to obesity.[ref]