Brain Health, Exercise and BDNF

December 09, 2011

Brain Health, Exercise and BDNF 

 Reference:  New York Times, Nov 30th, 2011, Physiological Behavior, Oct 24, 2011 

 We got it!  It’s BDNF! Brain derived neurotrophic factor.  That’s the key to preserving memory and brain health as we age.  It’s a name we all need to become familiar with as I’m certain new research will blossom from this paper.  This is the link with exercise and cognitive decline.  Dr. Griffin et al from Trinity College in Dublin took a group of young exercising men and measured their BDNF levels in comparison to their ability to remember faces on both an acute and a chronic level of fitness training.  

What they found was that exercise raises their levels of BDNF, and that correlates with their ability to remember complex face recognition patterns. BDNF is a protein that stimulates your brain to put out new neurons and for those connections with other neurons to stick.  It is critical to learning.   Many of our neurons are fixed at birth and don’t change much over our life times.  Our first couple of years have massive amounts of remodeling and making connections between our neurons with maturation continuing up into our twenties.  

But the concept of neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to grow new pathways is also emerging and we are beginning to realize that the brain is not a fixed, static entity that gradually loses it’s ability to grow.  At any time in life we can grow new brain cells.  It is particularly active in the hippocampus, cortex and basal forebrain where we have the most important parts for neural memory and higher thinking type functions. 

 The New York Times article also references a study in older pilots who were asked to practice in a flight simulator repeatedly over several years.  Their ability to function in the complex world of flying an airplane was shown to decline with age.  More interesting was that those pilots with markers for low BDNF declined the most in their ability.  This suggests that BDNF is particularly important to maintaining memory and cognitive function. You can’t take BDNF as a pill.  It is a complex, large protein.  

But at any age in life you can stimulate it to be more present.  It’s hard to take humans brains out and examine them, but in rat models of aging, the NYT article references several studies in which aging rats were allowed to exercise and then had their brains looked at for BDNF content.  Sure enough, exercise stimulated BDNF and its precursor molecules within a week.  And the older exercising rats performed almost as well as younger rats on memory tests. 

(Editor's note:   Search in 2022 for Plasmalogens, the building blocks of axons and neurons and the basic driver of neuroplasticitiy.  Your brain always wants to build redundancy and resilience, but needs the building blocks that we lose with aging. This is now quite a dated blog but it reflects the knowledge we had then.   JW)

WWW. What will work for me.  Now that winter is upon me, I need a little more motivation to get moving.  I have to go somewhere to exercise because it’s not so easy to run outside.  My BDNF might just be it.  Very interesting concept.  BDNF. 

Pop Quiz

1.    Just what is BDNF?           Answer:  A peptide titled Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which appears to turn on making more links or synapses connecting our cells in our brains. That's how memories get created and preserved.

2.    And what does exercise do for your BDNF?               Answer:   Makes for more BDNF

3.    What does neuroplasticity mean?               Answer: Your brain isn't a fixed thing. It can grow. 

 Written by John E Whitcomb, MD  Brookfield Longevity and Healthy Living Clinic,  17585 W North Ave, Suite 160, Brookfield WI  53045