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BDNF – Miracle-Gro for the Brain

BDNF Miracle-Gro for the Brain

What is BDNF?

BDNF stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” It’s a protein actually, dubbed a master molecule and referred to as “Miracle-Gro for the brain” by Harvard psychiatrist, John J. Ratey, MD, author of Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. According to Ratey, BDNF is “a crucial biological link between thought, emotions, and movement.”

BDNF binds to receptors in the synapses between neurons, increasing voltage (yes your brain is electric!), and improving signal strength. Inside the cells, it activates genes that increase production of more BDNF and other important proteins, as well as serotonin, the neurotransmitter vital for learning and self-esteem. Low levels of BDNF have been associated with depression and even suicide.

Basically BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages new neurons to grow and protects them from stress and cell death. Sprinkled on neurons in a petri dish, BDNF is observed to cause brain cells to sprout the structural branches required for learning — sort of like fertilizer for the brain.

So how do you get more BDNF?


Daily aerobic exercise is best, but including intervals of sprints are even better. In a recent German study, volunteers who did two 3 minute sprints (separated by 2 minutes of lower intensity) during the course of a forty-minute treadmill session demonstrated higher increases in BDNF than non-sprinters. Not only that, the sprinters learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster than non-sprinting exercisers. It seems even a small amount of high-intensity exertion can have a profound effect on your brain!

Caution: Be sure to have a talk with your doctor before engaging in high-intensity sprints or before beginning any exercise program. It’s important to have aerobic conditioning in place before adding intervals of sprints — at least 6 months of six-days-a-week aerobics according to Dr. Ratey. And even then, check first with your own doctor.


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{ 37 comments… add one }
  • Mike

    Can you buy BDNF and just take it as a supplement? I see you can purchase it but not sure if it’s safe.

  • Excellent article thank you Linda as a social worker and play therapist I love love love the fact that the play circuit in the brain can be activated by these brain fertilizers!

  • sand

    So does bdnf actually create new brain cells?? A mate has lost quite a few and I read somewhere that it does create new cells.

    • JOEL

      BDNF does create new brain cells and more. Do a search on a book entitled “Boost Your Brain: THE NEW ART AND SCIENCE BEHIND ENHANCED BRAIN PERFORMANCE”.

  • Alejandro Moreno

    really nice article

  • Doctors, generally, don’t know about exercise and provide uninformed bromides and encourage low intensity activity with little benefit- more reflective of their ignorance or personal bias than real science or even a logical extrapolation of fundamental exercise principles.

    • sand

      So can bdnf tablets help create new brain cells?

      • Hi Sandra. There are no BDNF supplements available. Those you may see are high priced formulas that contain components proposed to help the formation of BDNF, but there is no science to back this up or any clinical trials that I know of. Sorry, but I suggest you save your money and exercise instead.

  • Raihan M

    Is there a link online to that “recent German study” ?

    • Linda Gabriel

      Thanks for your question. While my source was Ratey’s book Spark, a quick online search provided the original source: Science Direct: High Impact Running Improves Learning http://bit.ly/XPGp1T

  • ehendrik617

    Thanks for a great post! You decode high-level neuroscience without dumbing it down. Great work.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Gee thanks! That’s what I aim for. 😉

  • I “prescribe” exercise to all of my patients who are able to exercise. I’ve been impressed that most will make at least some progress. I try to follow my own advice, and find it quite helpful. Clearly exercise is good for the body, and it is good to know it is good for the brain as well.

  • george best


  • Caro

    Once you are in the routine do your best not to get out! its so hard to pick it up again :S

  • I hike everyday and now I’m tempted to add some running sprints into my hikes to feed my brain 🙂

  • Workout Rings

    This study is really amazing.Just gives me one more reason to exercise…

  • I am a total believer in this kind of study. I notice a big difference in how I think and feel when I exercise on a regular basis.

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