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Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): A Deep Dive into Its Implications in Fitness and Neurology

(Cover photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jonathan Wright/Released. July, 2013)

Introduction: Deciphering BDNF

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, commonly abbreviated as BDNF, is a protein critically associated with neural health, synaptic plasticity, and the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. Given its vital role in neural modulation, understanding its mechanisms and applications, particularly in the context of exercise, is paramount for both the clinical and sports science communities.

The Multifaceted Role of BDNF

1. Protection against Neurological Disorders

An increase in BDNF levels acts as a protective mechanism against the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Its presence ensures the survival of existing neurons while facilitating the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.

2. Cognitive Enhancement

Higher concentrations of BDNF have been associated with improved memory and cognitive function. The hippocampus, integral for memory consolidation, is particularly receptive to the influence of BDNF, with studies indicating increased hippocampal BDNF mRNA expression post-exercise.

3. Mental Health Stabilization

BDNF plays an instrumental role in regulating mood and emotional health, with deficiencies linked to various psychological disorders. Elevated BDNF levels, facilitated by specific interventions, may serve as a therapeutic approach to mood stabilization.


Studies have indicated altered BDNF levels in PTSD patients, suggesting that trauma can influence the neurotrophic environment of the brain. Lower BDNF concentrations, for instance, have been associated with the severity of PTSD symptoms, potentially influencing memory consolidation and reconsolidation processes integral to traumatic memory modulation. Moreover, interventions that increase BDNF levels, such as physical exercise, have shown promise in attenuating PTSD symptoms, possibly by facilitating neural resilience and adaptability. Additionally, the potential interaction between BDNF and the hippocampus, a region known for its vulnerability in PTSD, underscores the significance of understanding this neurotrophin’s role in trauma-related disorders. While BDNF presents a promising avenue for PTSD research, further rigorous investigations are necessary to delineate its precise role and therapeutic potential fully.

Exercise and BDNF: The Inextricable Link

The relationship between physical activity and BDNF secretion has long been recognized. However, understanding the nuances of this relationship, particularly the differential impacts of various exercise modalities, is essential.

(Photo: Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes. March, 2021)

Resistance Training: A Key Proponent for BDNF Augmentation

Emerging evidence suggests a pronounced effect of Resistance Training (RT) on BDNF levels. Comparative research demonstrates that RT holds a superior position in elevating BDNF concentrations, ranking ahead of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), combined training (CT), and aerobic training (AT). As such, the implementation of RT should be strongly considered when aiming to maximize the neurotrophic benefits of exercise.

Implications for Professional Populations

In professional settings where cognitive acuity, quick decision-making, and mental endurance are critical — such as military personnel, first responders, and healthcare professionals — optimizing BDNF concentrations could be of pronounced benefit. For these populations, understanding the most effective strategies for BDNF elevation is not just academic; it’s practical.

Mechanistic Insights for the Clinician

At the molecular level, BDNF serves as a modulator for synaptic plasticity, fostering neural health and resilience. With exercise, especially resistance training, there’s an upregulation of BDNF mRNA expression, specifically within the hippocampus. Intriguingly, certain myokines, such as cathepsin-B and irisin, released during physical activity, may traverse the blood–brain barrier, inducing a subsequent elevation in BDNF.

Conclusion and Future Perspectives

The role of BDNF in bridging the domains of neurology and exercise science is undeniable. Resistance training, given its superiority in enhancing BDNF levels, warrants further exploration, especially within populations where cognitive and neurological health is paramount. The next frontier in this research will involve determining the optimal resistance training protocols for maximal BDNF elevation, and subsequently, the most pronounced neurocognitive benefits.


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DISCLAIMER: Content on this website is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Please see a physician or mental health specialist before making any medical or lifestyle decisions. Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Products recommended on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

James Conner , USMC (Ret.)
I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I earned a BSc. in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick (Ireland), and am currently living in the Netherlands where I am pursuing a MSc in Biomedicine specializing in Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Metabolism. I am a Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach, and Cancer Exercise Specialist.
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