Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, was recently featured on The Dr. Oz Show. The protein plays a significant role in brain activity and is linked to a reduced risk of degenerative brain conditions. Here’s what you need to know about BDNF.
What is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor?
Neurotrophic factors are a family of proteins responsible for the growth and survival of your nerve cells as they develop. They also help to maintain adult nerve cells.
Recent in vitro and animal studies have revealed that certain neurotrophic factors are capable of making damaged nerve cells regenerate. One of those neurotrophic factors is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF (and other neurotrophic factors) are being studied as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease (HD) and other conditions.
What scientists are now trying to do is harness the potential of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and turn it into real medical benefits in the form of drugs and treatments.
How Does BDNF Work?
BDNF is currently undergoing active study, and we don’t yet fully understand it. However, researchers have found that BDNF levels are lower in the brains of patients with Huntington’s Disease (HD). Researchers believe that the lower levels of BDNF may be responsible for the degenerative processes of HD.
Why do researchers think there’s a connection between BDNF and the degeneration of HD? Well, they’ve actually seen that connection in action. In a recent study, researchers observed a link between BDNF, mutant huntingtin, and excitotoxicity (which is the process where brain cells die after receiving stimulation).
Some believe that degenerative brain conditions will lower levels of BDNF – mutant huntingtin, for example, might target BDNF in the brain.
Remember up above how we said that BDNF is responsible for maintaining your adult nerve cells? When your BDNF levels are lowered, your nerve cells are more susceptible to injury and death.
There’s a Link Between Exercising and BDNF
Many people are hearing about BDNF today because there’s exciting research going on regarding the link between exercise and BDNF production.
Namely, exercise appears to increase BDNF production.
In animal studies, researchers have found that voluntary exercise leads to increased BDNF production. Rats were observed after several days of voluntary wheel-running and it was found they had elevated levels of BDNF in the hippocampus.
Why is it important that BDNF was found in the hippocampus? Well, the hippocampus is the part of your brain typically associated with memory, emotions, and other higher cognitive functions. It’s not associated with motor activity.
Researchers expected exercise to increase BDNF levels in areas of the brain affecting motor functions. But they didn’t expect it to increase BDNF levels in areas of our brain associated with higher cognitive functions.
A similar study involving mice found that mice that exercised had higher BDNF levels in the striatum than mice that didn’t exercise. That’s an important finding because human patients with HD typically have lower levels of BDNF in the striatum, and these low levels are thought to be linked to neurodegeneration.
Want to increase BDNF levels and reduce your risk of degenerative brain conditions? Start exercising! Studies have shown that the best exercise for raising BDNF levels is aerobic exercise at 60% to 75% of your maximum heart rate, sustained for about 30 minutes.
You can’t just exercise once to raise BDNF levels. You might experience a small boost after one workout, but it takes a few months before your brain has a significant change in BDNF levels.
It’s no secret that regular exercise reduces your risk of degenerative conditions. And now BDNF is giving us another reason why there’s a connection.
BDNF is a Potential Treatment for Degenerative Neurological Conditions
BDNF is under active research. Most studies performed thus far have involved animals or in vitro studies. However, human trials are currently seeking to determine the effectiveness of BDNF in human patients.
Researchers believe that by raising BDNF levels, they can reduce symptoms of – or even prevent – certain neurodegenerative diseases.
With that in mind, the goal is to make a medication that raises BDNF levels.
The problem is that you can’t inject BDNF or take it orally. It won’t cross the blood-brain barrier when taken in these methods.
Currently, researchers are trying to develop ways for BDNF to pass through the barrier and interact with the brain. One potential method is through gene therapy: as you read this, researchers are performing gene therapy on mice with HD and “researchers are confident that research in this area will progress rapidly.”
Current BDNF Inducers
There are three main types of drugs currently available that could increase BDNF levels in the brain. These drugs are called BDNF inducers.
Citalopram is an anti-depressant that is currently used to treat people with depression. It’s sold under the brand name Celexa. Like many anti-depressants, Citalopram is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). SSRIs are thought to raise BDNF levels in an indirect way: they increase serotonin levels in the brain, which then encourages your brain’s nerve cells to produce more BDNF. After noticing this connection, researchers have looked more closely at using SSRIs to increase BDNF and treat various neurodegenerative conditions.
Ampakines are well-known in the nootropic community, but they’re also being researched for their potential to raise BDNF levels in the brain. In a study published in 2010, scientists treating HD mice with Ampakines found promising results: mice injected with Ampakines twice daily had normal levels of BDNF (remember, these mice had Huntington’s Disease and were expected to have below normal levels of BDNF).
Cystamine is a drug that appears to have multiple methods of action against Huntington’s Disease. Like the other two drugs listed here, Cystamine raises BDNF levels. However, it also helps treat HD by inhibiting protein aggregation, which is the process that causes clumps of mutant huntingtin to form in the brain. At the same time, it also has antioxidant properties, which neutralizes free radicals across the brain.
Ultimately, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is an exciting area of research that will almost certainly play a significant role in the way we treat cognitive conditions in the future.