And no, BDNF is not an acronym for Best Darn New Friend. It stands for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. It is stimulated by vigorous exercise, ergo people who exercise perform better on memory tests. Scientists have long known that exercise boost brain function; the unknown is why. With a few recent studies, they think they’re beginning to understand the link a little better.
“To learn more about how exercise affects the brain, scientists in Ireland recently asked a group of sedentary male college students to take part in a memory test followed by strenuous exercise.
First, the young men watched a rapid-fire lineup of photos with the faces and names of strangers. After a break, they tried to recall the names they had just seen as the photos again zipped across a computer screen.
Afterward, half of the students rode a stationary bicycle, at an increasingly strenuous pace, until they were exhausted. The others sat quietly for 30 minutes. Then both groups took the brain-teaser test again.
Notably, the exercised volunteers performed significantly better on the memory test than they had on their first try, while the volunteers who had rested did not improve.
… Immediately after the strenuous activity, the cyclists had significantly higher levels of a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. The men who had sat quietly showed no comparable change in BDNF levels.
If you’re not someone who normally exercises, take heart. In a separate study, they put elderly rats on a treadmill and made them run for five minutes, and after just one week of exercise, the rats BDNF levels had increased and there were lots of “precursor molecules” that the scientists believe will develop into more BDNF molecules.
BDNF also seems to play a vital role in being able to perform skilled tasks — like driving a car. Hm. Another reason to exercise – independence.
Dr. Ahmad Salehi, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford notes that there are many other factors and chemicals that go into memory and brain function other than BDNF, but since BDNF “shows the fastest, most consistent and greatest response… It seems to be key to maintaining not just memory but skilled task performance.”