Optimizing brain health with BDNF

You may have seen mention of a substance known as BDNF in the media… which has the power to keeps the brain functioning more youthfully and optimally. BDNF stands for Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and it has an important role in promoting and maintaining brain function. It has also been found to be a key mediator of neuroplasticity in the central nervous system. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to optimally form and organize in response to learning and experience.

brain color colorful cube
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

So…we know that if we want a better brain, we want more BDNF. How do we get it? Unfortunately, BDNF levels naturally decline with age. Levels also diminish with conditions such as depression, Parkison’s disease, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia.

The good news is that several studies have demonstrated the positive impact of mindful meditation on BDNF levels in certain populations.

  • Dada, T., Mittal, D., Mohanty, K., Faiq, M. A., Bhat, M. A., Yadav, R. K., … & Pandey, R. M. (2018). Mindfulness meditation reduces intraocular pressure, lowers stress biomarkers and modulates gene expression in glaucoma: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of glaucoma27(12), 1061-1067.
  • Gagrani, M., Faiq, M. A., Sidhu, T., Dada, R., Yadav, R. K., Sihota, R., … & Dada, T. (2018). Meditation enhances brain oxygenation, upregulates BDNF and improves quality of life in patients with primary open angle glaucoma: a randomized controlled trial. Restorative neurology and neuroscience36(6), 741-753.
  • Tolahunase, M. R., Sagar, R., Faiq, M., & Dada, R. (2018). Yoga-and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Restorative neurology and neuroscience36(3), 423-442.

All three of these studies measured levels of BDNF in participants pre- and post- meditative practice and compared them to control groups. Those who participated in the mindful meditation practices demonstrated significant differences with respect to increased levels of BDNF compared to the controls.

However, it is always important to be discriminating when reviewing research. A review of 15 clinical trials was conducted earlier this year by You & Ogawa considering the evidence relating to the effects of meditation and mind-body exercise on BDNF.

  • You, T., & Ogawa, E. F. (2020). Effects of Meditation and Mind-Body Exercise on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor: A Literature Review of Human Experimental Studies. Sports Medicine and Health Science.

However, the authors note that while meditation and mind-body exercise are shown to increase BDNF, the limited evidence is not sufficient to identify the difference between mindfulness and mind-body exercise and impacts on BDNF. As aerobic exercise is known to also increase BDNF, the physical demands of the mind-body exercise interventions (Tai Chi and Yoga) may be responsible for the increases in BDNF so further studies are needed on mind-body exercise or mindful movement.

Yoga and Tai chi have been found to have many health benefits so I encourage their practice as well. However, based on these early findings, one might safely assume that the best way to protect and optimize the brain through BDNF is to include a balance of mindful meditation and aerobic exercise in our daily lives.

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