BDNF: cognition, stress resilience, introversion, and mood

Key takeaways:
~Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that promotes nerve function and growth.
~It also works in the neurons of the brain both in forming neurons and in long-term memory formation.
~Low BDNF is linked to depression and cognitive dysfunction.

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What is BDNF?

BDNF stands for a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It is a type of protein called a neurotrophin. BDNF works in several ways:

  • BDNF encourages new neuronal growth from stem cells
  • it protects neurons from injury and cell death
  • it improves neuronal function (important in learning and mood)

In addition to promoting nerve function, BDNF also is involved in neurotransmitters. It works with the response to dopamine[ref] and in serotonin transport.[ref]

As a protein that is essential for neuronal growth, BDNF is vital for neural plasticity and recovery after brain injury.[ref]

Essentially, BDNF is important for good cognition and nervous system function. You want plenty of BDNF to help your neurotransmitters function well.

Can genetic variants cause lower BDNF levels?

Genetic variants can decrease the amount of BDNF that your body normally makes. These variants have been tied to a number of brain and nervous system-related issues.

For example, introversion and an increased risk of depression have been tied in with BDNF variants. Obesity risk is also increased for certain variants.

While genetics plays a role in your baseline BDNF production, lifestyle factors such as food, exercise, and sleep also play a big role in BDNF. Fortunately, there are ways to increase BDNF and mitigate the problems associated with the BDNF gene variants. (Lifehacks section below)

Studies on BDNF levels show:

  • Chronic stress causes a decrease in BDNF.[ref]
  • Low BDNF is linked to Alzheimer’s disease[ref] and Parkinson’s[ref][ref]
  • People with depression usually have lower levels of BDNF.[ref][ref][ref]
  • Mothers with postpartum or during pregnancy depression have low BDNF[ref], and older people with depression also have low BDNF.[ref]
  • Low BDNF is linked to obesity.[ref]

Genetic changes in BDNF levels are linked to being more of an introvert versus being more socially outgoing. Additionally, some BDNF genetic variants are linked to neurocognitive changes such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and impulsivity.


BDNF Genotype Report

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Check your genetic data for rs6265 Val66Met (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: decreased BDNF[ref] referred to in studies as Met/Met; introversion, resilient to adverse events, a quicker decline in Alz., more likely to be overweight[ref][ref][ref]
  • C/T: somewhat decreased BDNF, referred to as Val/Met; introversion, resilient to adverse events, a quicker decline in Alz
  • C/C: typical BDNF, referred to as Val/Val

Members: Your genotype for rs6265 is .

By far the best-studied BDFN variant, the rs6265 (Val66Met) variant causes a less efficient form and decreases secretion of BDNF.[ref] Other studies on rs6265 have found the T allele linked to:

  • Increased risk of depression in alcohol use disorder[ref]
  • Increased cognitive impairment in insomnia[ref]
  • Positive: A greater resilience to traumatic childhood events[ref]

Other variants that can affect BDNF expression:

Check your genetic data for rs56164415 C270T (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: increased risk of schizophrenia[ref]; increased risk of PTSD[ref]; possibly less BDNF in specific regions of the brain[ref]
  • A/G: increased risk of schizophrenia[ref]; increased risk of PTSD[ref]; possibly less BDNF in specific regions of the brain[ref]
  • G/G: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs56164415 is .

Check your genetic data for rs11030101 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):

  • T/T: decreased risk of asthma[ref], associated with ADHD in girls[ref]
  • A/T: decreased risk of asthma, less likely to benefit from electroconvulsive therapy[ref]
  • A/A: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs11030101 is .

Check your genetic data for rs7103411 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: increased impulsivity in children (minor)[ref], better response to antidepressants for melancholic depression[ref]
  • C/T: increased impulsivity in children (minor)
  • T/T: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs7103411 is .


Lifehacks

Don’t fret if you are genetically pre-disposed to lower or altered BDNF levels, you can still affect BDNF levels significantly. Carrying the variants above just makes optimizing BDNF production that much more important!

How to increase BDNF levels naturally:

Sleep: Good quality sleep boosts BDNF. Sleep is the mediator between stress and BDNF levels.[ref]

Make sure that you don’t have any light in your room at night when you sleep. Dim light at night decreases BDFN levels (animal study).[ref] Light can penetrate your eyelids and affect your sleep and circadian rhythm. Try a sleep mask or blackout curtains if you live in an urban area. The green and blue LED indicator lights on electronics in your bedroom can also give off a surprising amount of light. I’ve found that a little black electrical tape over those little lights can help a lot.

Related Article: Blue-blocking glasses

Exercise – even a single bout – increases BDNF levels in the hippocampus.[ref][ref]  This is likely a factor in how exercise decreases depressive symptoms.

Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight or bright light during the day increases BDNF levels.[ref] Go outside! Or take a vacation to a sunny area.

Avoid Chronic Stress: Stress decreases BDNF levels.[ref] We all know that stress isn’t good for us, so here is one more reason why you should avoid it. Simple, tried and true methods for reducing stress include exercising (go for a walk in the sunshine!) and sleeping well.

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6 natural supplements to increase BDNF levels:

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Related Articles and Genes:

GABA: Genetic variants that impact this inhibitory neurotransmitter
GABA (gamma-Aminobuyteric acid) is a neurotransmitter that acts to block or inhibit a neuron from firing. It is an essential way that the brain regulates impulses, and low GABA levels are linked with several conditions including anxiety and PTSD.

The Interaction Between BDNF and Serotonin
We are truly intricate and complex  —  a biological system — and genetic variants often don’t have a huge impact on their own. Instead, the impact comes in the combination of gene variants or the interaction of a variant with the environment (toxins, stress, sleep, diet, pathogens, etc).

Depression, Genetics, and Circadian Rhythm
For some, the heart of depression or mood disorders lies in circadian rhythm disruption. Fortunately, there are solutions that may help.

 

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.