Research Shows New Link Between Brain Protein and Mental Decline

Researchers at Rush University in Chicago recently published some promising information in the journal, Neurology, about a particular protein in your brain. The protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), promotes growth and protection of nerve pathways essential to cognition, and promotes persistence of your long-term memory (it gets harder to make new long-term memories as you get older).

What Researchers Found
Researchers administered cognitive tests to 535 older adults (average age ~81) on a yearly basis up until their death. The researchers then analyzed brain samples for the BDNF gene in the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain where your personality and executive functioning resides). They compared BDNF levels to stages of cognitive impairment just prior to death—no impairment, some impairment or dementia. And the researchers found that cognitive decline was 50% slower in adults with higher BDNF gene expression, as compared to adults with much lower BDNF levels.

What Does This Mean for You?
So, it looks like having a lot of BDNF may help protect your brain (and therefore you) as you age, but is there anything you can do to raise your numbers? Currently, there are no drugs that specifically boost BDNF in healthy adults, but there are other lifestyle actions you can take. There is a ton of evidence showing positive effects of exercise on BDNF—check out this meta-analysis (a meta-analysis is a study that reviews lots of similar studies and comes to a single conclusion).

Want some other ideas that may not have as much evidence (but still look promising)? Try a daily cup of joe or tea, or get some extra sunlight to increase BDNF. Also, refining your sense of purpose in life can improve your cognitive health in general as you get older. And for all of you parents out there, one study (albeit, in mice) found that early social enrichment may shape BDNF levels as you grow up.

(Feature photo courtesy of

Nicolette Hoke

Nicolette Hoke is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.