What is a Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2019
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Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein capable of regulating the development of neurons. It is found primarily in the brain, although it also occurs in other regions of the body, and is most highly concentrated in the cortex, hippocampus, and basal forebrain. Variations in brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels have been linked with neurological diseases, mental illness, and delays in cognitive development. This protein has potential applications in medical treatment and is a topic of interest among neurological researchers.

BDNF belongs to a family of proteins all known as neurotrophins. These proteins act in different ways on neurons. In the case of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, the protein is capable of stimulating germ cells to develop and differentiate new neurons and axons. In addition, the protein is involved in the regulation of processes that keep neurons alive. This makes it an important part of the brain's chemistry, and it plays an especially crucial role in long term memory.

While people are born with most of their neurons already in place, as are many other mammals, brain-derived neurotrophic factor plays a role in neurological development. Animal studies have shown that deficits of this protein can lead to developmental delays and sometimes death. In addition, the brain is capable of growing some new neurons over the course of a lifetime, with the assistance of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Without BDNF, the brain cannot perform a number of important functions.


Mental illness such as depression has been linked with alterations in levels of this protein, suggesting it is linked with psychological states, as well as cognitive development. In addition, certain neurological diseases are paired with a suppression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor production, showing how this protein plays a role in these disorders as well. Understanding the role of BDNF in disease processes in the brain may be important for research on how to prevent, treat, and potentially cure some diseases involving the brain.

This protein was one of the first neurotrophins to be identified and it has been very heavily studied in lab settings all over the world. Neurological research on humans is hampered by the fact that experimentation on the brain is deemed unethical, forcing researchers to rely on observation and retrospective evaluation to collect data on the role of various compounds in the human brain. People asked to participate in neurological research can get information about what researchers will be doing to decide whether they want to be involved.


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