When I hear a problematic term for the first time, part of my brain seems to switch off. So it was when I first read about brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
What is BDNF, and why should you care?
Even though I had come across the term in several studies and even mentioned it briefly in yesterday’s post, my understanding of its meaning remained like an unfinished puzzle.
But I was intrigued enough to dig a little deeper! First, the acronym:
–N stands for neuro-, which is rooted in the Greek words “neuro,” for “nerves,” or “nervous system.” And -trophic,” from the Greek “trophikos,” meaning “pertaining to food or nourishment.” when applied to our bodies, means growth or stimulation. It’s the opposite of “atrophy,” which means to “waste away” or “decline in strength due to neglect or underuse.”
You may have noticed your unused muscles atrophying over time. Well, the same thing will happen to our brains if we don’t work to prevent it!
–F is for “factor,” which refers to a biological material that causes a specific effect.
So, what is BDNF? Taken together, it means:
- Brain-derived: produced in the brain.
- Neurotrophic: nervous system stimulation and growth.
- Factor: actively affecting our brains and other systems.
BDNF is a substance we produce naturally. It ensures the growth and strengthening of our brains and other parts of our bodies.
What Is BDNF Doing for Our Brains?
One of BDNF’s most important jobs is to help us learn and remember things. Your hippocampus, the part of the brain which plays a significant role in both, has the highest concentration of BDNF.
As young children, we need BDNF to help our nervous systems grow and develop correctly. During adulthood, it’s’ crucial to maintaining our learning and memory skills.
The human brain is not a computer:
Some people have compared our brains to computers, but this analogy has an obvious problem. Our brains are alive!
Once you’ve maxed out the memory on your computer’s hard drive, the only way to “grow” it is to add more memory manually.
However, our brains keep growing and making new connections throughout our lives! Food and water nourish our bodily growth, and BDNF nourishes the growth of our brains’ internal connections.
That’s why running short of BDNF unleashes dire consequences. The brain’s connection-building ability begins to atrophy. Depression follows, and dementia may eventually start degrading our memory.
BDNF also works to maintain the balance of energy throughout our bodies and affects our metabolism.
Lifestyle Choices and BDNF Levels
Speaking of metabolism. As a boy, I’d join my brothers in marching around the kitchen after dinner, chanting, “We want ice cream, we want ice cream, we want ice cream!”
Who knows if BDNF was partly responsible for this childish craving? However, if our brains could march around and chant, their refrain would undoubtedly be, “We want BDNF, we want BDNF, we want BDNF!”
Luckily, my parents instinctively recognized the best way to keep our young brains growing was to resist most of our ice cream cravings.
Instead, they encouraged plenty of outdoor play and fed us healthy food. These lifestyle choices undoubtedly had a significant impact on our BDNF levels!
What are the benefits of higher BDNF levels? I’ve just experienced one of them.
When I first came across the hard-to-understand term of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor, my brain felt like turning off. Instead, something allowed me to take on the “What IS BDNF?” puzzle for myself.
Of course, that “something” was BDNF! It’s the puzzle piece that makes solving the puzzle possible! And I’ll keep right on learning until the puzzle feels complete!
Tomorrow, I’ll look at ways to boost our BDNF levels.