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.