Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a crucial component of neural health and plasticity, playing a vital role in cognition, memory, and learning. This review explores the biological roles of BDNF, its signaling pathways, and its implications for cognitive function and neurodegenerative diseases. We will also discuss the potential therapeutic applications of BDNF modulation.

Updated May 22, 2023


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a member of the neurotrophin family, which includes nerve growth factor (NGF), neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), and neurotrophin-4 (NT-4) (1). BDNF is synthesized as a precursor protein, proBDNF, which is subsequently cleaved to produce mature BDNF (2). BDNF is widely expressed throughout the brain, with particularly high levels in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain – regions associated with learning and memory (3).

BDNF has been implicated in various aspects of brain development, including neuronal survival, differentiation, synaptic plasticity, and the regulation of neuronal circuits (4). In recent years, BDNF has gained attention for its role in cognitive function and its potential as a therapeutic target for various neurological and psychiatric disorders (5).

Understanding Mental Health and Cognitive Functioning

Mental health and cognitive functioning are closely related, as disruptions to mental health can significantly impact cognitive performance. While it is natural for cognitive abilities to decline slightly with age, severe disruptions to mental health can exacerbate this decline.

One of the primary factors influencing cognitive function is the brain's ability to form new neural connections and prune unnecessary ones. This process, known as neuroplasticity, is influenced by several factors, including exercise, diet, sleep, and stress levels. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD can impair neuroplasticity, leading to cognitive deficits such as decreased memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities.

However, interventions such as psychotherapy and medication can improve neuroplasticity and cognitive function in individuals with mental health disorders. Psychotherapy has been shown to increase neuroplasticity in individuals with depression, while certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been linked to improved neuroplasticity and cognitive function.

In addition to these interventions, lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep can also enhance cognitive function and support mental health. Exercise has been shown to promote neuroplasticity and increase cognitive function, while a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to improved cognitive performance and reduced risk of mental health disorders.

By implementing interventions and lifestyle changes that support mental health and neuroplasticity, individuals can improve their cognitive abilities and overall quality of life.

BDNF Signaling Pathways:

BDNF exerts its biological effects by binding to two distinct receptors: the tropomyosin receptor kinase B (TrkB) and the p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR) (6). The binding of BDNF to TrkB activates several intracellular signaling cascades, including the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), phosphatidylinositol-3-kinase (PI3K), and phospholipase C-γ (PLC-γ) pathways (7). These signaling pathways play essential roles in neuronal survival, differentiation, and synaptic plasticity (8).

On the other hand, BDNF's interaction with p75NTR can lead to diverse outcomes, including neuronal survival or death, depending on the cellular context and the presence of co-receptors (9). Some studies have suggested that proBDNF preferentially binds to p75NTR, promoting cell death, while mature BDNF preferentially binds to TrkB, promoting cell survival (10).

BDNF and Cognitive Function:

BDNF plays a pivotal role in modulating synaptic plasticity, which is the cellular basis for learning and memory (11). Synaptic plasticity refers to the ability of synapses to change their strength in response to neuronal activity, which can occur through processes such as long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD) (12).

BDNF has been shown to enhance LTP in the hippocampus by increasing the expression of synaptic proteins, such as synapsin I and synaptophysin, and modulating the function of glutamate receptors (13). Additionally, BDNF facilitates the expression of genes related to synaptic plasticity, such as Arc and c-Fos, through the activation of the MAPK and PI3K signaling pathways (14).

Conversely, reduced BDNF levels have been associated with impaired cognitive function in animal models and humans (15). For example, BDNF heterozygous knockout mice exhibit deficits in spatial learning and memory (16). In humans, genetic variations in the BDNF gene, particularly the Val66Met polymorphism, have been linked to impaired hippocampal function and decreased memory performance (17).

BDNF and Neurodegenerative Diseases:

Several lines of evidence suggest that dysregulation of BDNF may contribute to the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Parkinson's disease (PD) (18). In AD, postmortem studies have reported reduced BDNF expression in the hippocampus and cortex, regions severely affected by the disease (19). Furthermore, animal models of AD have shown that restoring BDNF levels can improve cognitive function and reduce amyloid-beta (Aβ) accumulation, a hallmark of AD (20).

Similarly, in PD, BDNF expression is decreased in the substantia nigra, a region that undergoes significant degeneration (21). In animal models of PD, BDNF has been shown to protect dopaminergic neurons from degeneration and promote their survival (22). Moreover, exogenous administration of BDNF has been found to improve motor function in these models (23).

BDNF and Psychiatric Disorders:

BDNF has also been implicated in the etiology of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia (24). Studies have reported reduced BDNF levels in the serum and postmortem brain tissue of individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) and schizophrenia (25). Antidepressant treatment, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), has been shown to increase BDNF expression in animal models and humans (26).

In schizophrenia, genetic studies have identified associations between BDNF gene polymorphisms and the disorder, suggesting a potential role for BDNF in the development of the disease (27). Preclinical studies have shown that BDNF can modulate dopamine and glutamate neurotransmission, which are known to be disrupted in schizophrenia (28).

Therapeutic Applications of BDNF Modulation:

Given the crucial role of BDNF in neural plasticity and cognitive function, strategies aimed at enhancing BDNF signaling have been considered for the treatment of various neurological and psychiatric disorders (29). One approach has been the development of small molecules that can either directly activate TrkB or increase the availability of endogenous BDNF (30). However, the blood-brain barrier has limited the development of such compounds, as many small molecules cannot cross it efficiently (31).

An alternative strategy is the use of physical exercise or environmental enrichment, which have been shown to increase BDNF expression in the brain (32). For example, regular aerobic exercise has been found to enhance cognitive function and increase hippocampal BDNF levels in both animal models and humans (33). Similarly, environmental enrichment, which involves exposure to novel and stimulating experiences, has been shown to promote BDNF expression and improve cognitive function in rodents (34).

Recent advances in gene therapy have also offered a promising avenue for BDNF-based therapies (35). Viral vector-mediated delivery of BDNF has been shown to rescue cognitive deficits in animal models of AD and PD (36). However, the long-term safety and efficacy of these approaches in humans remain to be established.


BDNF is a critical regulator of neural plasticity and cognitive function, with implications for various neurological and psychiatric disorders. Strategies aimed at enhancing BDNF signaling, such as small molecule activators, exercise, environmental enrichment, and gene therapy, hold promise for the development of novel therapeutic interventions. Further research is needed to better understand the complex roles of BDNF in the brain and to harness its potential for treating brain disorders.

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