Updated: May 12
WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY AND WHAT IS BDNF?
You may have heard about a concept called neuroplasticity. This is an ability of the human brain to rewire itself and to constantly form new neuronal connections and pathways. This process is how we form new memories, how we translate direct experience (such as playing the piano) into it becoming a skill. Neuroplasticity also helps us get over a trauma or negative emotional experience. Most importantly, a constant and active reshaping of the brain is how we improve our overall cognitive abilities, memory, focus, creativity and resilience to all forms of distraction.
Neuroplasticity is a complex biochemical process that largely depends on several types of proteins that we call Neurotrophic Factors. These are your architects and your brain builders. They are the mediators of your brain’s unlimited ability to form, reform and upgrade itself. The most prevalent and the most researched neurotrophic factor is a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor).
In the human brain, BDNF plays several important toles
FORMATION OF NEW NEURONAL CONNECTIONS - making new memories, experiences, learning new skills, instruments, techniques, languages. Learning to navigate yourself or simply to improve your work performance by becoming more efficient.
MAINTENANCE OF EXISTING NEURONAL PATHWAYS – such as preventing you from forgetting important information, losing memories or losing specific abilities.
MOOD– BDNF is responsible for the survival and maintenance of regions of the brain responsible for stabilising mood and feeling calm and grounded. Loss of these centres may lead to the development of depression.
PROTECTION FROM NEORUONAL AGEING AND FROM EXTERNAL DAMAGE– this means it acts as a form of a shield, deterring variety of offenders and harmful molecules that could impact our brain capabilities or create inflammation in the brain. Maintaining stable levels of BDNF is a great way to preserve great mental capabilities into older age.
ELIMINATION OF DAMAGED OR UNNECESSARY NEURONAL CONNECTIONS – an essential role of neuroplasticity & BDNF is not only to gain new neuronal connections but also to destroy those that are damaged or those that are not serving us anymore. This is beneficial for example, in the healing of trauma by helping the brain to reform and loose these “painful” connections.
WHAT HAPPENS IF BDNF LEVELS ARE LOW?
People suffering from mood disorders been found to have lower levels of BDNF in their blood. This could be one piece of the jigsaw that explains why certain types of therapies aimed at forming new neuronal connections could be beneficial in healing depression because they help the person see the world and their reality in another way by effectively forming new thinking pathways in their brain.
Low levels of BDNF will impair all cognitive abilities such as long-term and short-term memory, reasoning skills, attention & focus, learning, problem-solving, creativity, planning, and to a certain degree even interpersonal communication in extreme cases.
Lack of BDNF will also accelerate cognitive decline as the brain is being deprived of the engineer of its growth so many pathways that were once functional and operating are now being lost and atrophy (initial phase of dementia).
On the other hand, focusing on activities
s and things that promote BDNF may not only improve all forms of cognitive capabilities but it may be an effective way of treating dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders and many other psychiatric conditions. A large amount of research is looking into pharmacological treatments (I will talk about why this isn't the best approach in part 2)
WHAT HARMS OUR BDNF LEVELS
Being Obese or Overweight It has been found that obese people have an accelerated progression of cognitive decline, especially when their obesity is also combined with being diabetic and having high blood pressure. The reason for this is probably that obese people have a high degree of inflammation in the brain, and this causes a decline in BDNF.
High-Fat and High Sugar Diets A typical western diet that is high in saturated fats (high amount of meat, dairy, fried food and junk food) as well as in sugar have also been shown in research to reduce levels of BDNF and generally cause a decline in the majority of cognitive abilities.
Omega 6: Omega 3 imbalances High levels of Omega 6s over Omega 3s in the diet are very detrimental as well. For example, excessive consumption of vegetable oils, meat, dairy and egg and insufficient consumption of Omega 3 rich foods such as flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and oily fish could tip the balance towards Omega 6 dominance. This can have a downstream negative effect on the BDNF activity because excess Omega 6s may accelerate inflammation in the brain. (If you are interested, check out my previous blog article to learn more about Omega 3s and how to maximise them in your diet) .
Hypercaloric diet Overeating (even on good food) may also impair our cognitive abilities by damaging neuroplasticity. In fact, it appears that periods of reduced caloric intake even short term-fasting can be beneficial for spiking up BDNF levels, I will talk about this in Part 2.
Sedentary lifestyle I’ve explored this topic in another blog post. A sedentary lifestyle does have significant negative consequences not just on our lower backs but for out brains and mental performance as well.
Sleep Deprivation Whether intentionally (e.g. staying up late) or unintentionally (e.g. insomnia) any form of sleep deprivation results in a decline of BDNF activity. In fact, one of the highest peaks in neuroplasticity happens at night. It is during this time that short term experiences are converted to long-term memory in the brain region called the hippocampus. At night, events of the day are being processed, sorted and either discarded or stored. When sleep is disrupted, retention of important information (for example, by being a student studying for exams) could be significantly reduced.
Chronic Stress Chronic stress increases levels of stress hormone such as cortisol. These hormones may in return shut down brain’s ability to form and reshape simply because when survival is threatened, growing new synaptic connections is not a priority.
SUMMARY KEY POINTS
BDNF is the best known and most significant factor influencing neuroplasticity, a process of formation and reformation of new and existing neuronal pathways in the brain.
BDNF is responsible for
formation of new neuronal pathways
maintenance and protection of the existing ones
elimination of damaged or unused ones
BDNF is harmed by:
stress and poor sleep
high-fat diets (especially high in saturated fat), high sugar diets and Omega 6: Omega 3 imbalance
a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2
In the next post, we will discuss:
Can we just inject ourselves with synthetic BDNF to get the most of it?
How to increase our BDNF naturally through diet?
What lifestyle activities may enhance natural levels of BDNF?
What herbs have been tested in research?
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Monteiro, B.C. Monteiro, S. Candida, M. et al. (2017). ‘Relationship Between Brain-Derived Neurotrofic Factor (Bdnf) and Sleep on Depression: A Critical Review’, Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 13, pp.213-219.
Kowianski, P. Lietzau, G. Czuba, E. et al. ‘BDNF: A Key Factor with Multipotent Impact on Brain Signalling and Synaptic Plasticity’, Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 38, pp.579-593.
Beilharz, J.E. Maniam, J. Morris, M.J. et al. ‘Diet-Induced Cognitive Deficits: The Role of Fat and Sugar, Potential Mechanisms and Nutritional Interventions’, nutrients, 7 (8), pp.6719-38.
Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2008). ‘Brain Foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function’, Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9 (7), pp.568-578.
Molteni, R. Barnard, R.J. Ying, Z. et al. (2002). A High-Fat, Refined Sugar Diet Reduces Hippocampal Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, Neuronal Plasticity and Learning, Neuroscience, 112 (4), pp.803-814.