This morning I read about a thrilling development that holds great promise for brain health, memory, dementia, depression and even obesity. Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (http://www.dana-farber.org/Newsroom/News-Releases/Scientists-identify-protein-linking-exercise-to-brain-health.aspx) and Harvard Medical School have transferred the benefits of exercise from the brains of exercising mice to non-exercising mice.
It has been known for some time that exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) but no one knew how this happens. BDNF is a signaling molecule produced in the brain that influences the growth and survival of neurons. This research, led by Bruce Spiegelman, Ph.D., has found a molecular pathway that releases BDNF in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory.
This work has been reported in the journal Cell Metabolism. “What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain,” said Spiegelman. It is hoped that the protein can be developed into a drug that would improve cognition for people with neurodegenerative diseases.
Diet and BDNF
One of the leading researchers studying BDNF and its relationship to exercise has come out strongly in favor of dietary approaches to brain health. Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), says that eating less may stimulate BDNF production. Gómez-Pinilla points out that a long-term study that included more than 100 years of birth, death, health and genealogical records for 300 Swedish families in an isolated village showed that an individual’s risk for diabetes and early death increased if his or her paternal grandparents grew up in times of food abundance rather than food shortage. Counterintuitive perhaps, but true.
According to Gómez-Pinilla, omega-3 fatty acids — found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit — can improve learning and memory and contribute to relief of mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia. A 2004 study by Gómez-Pinilla and colleagues found that dietary omega-3 fatty acids normalize BDNF levels, reduce oxidative damage and counteract learning disability after traumatic brain injury in rats.
The take-away from BDNF research is obvious: exercise more and eat well. The exciting news is that those who are subject to terrible debilitating diseases originating in the brain may one day be treated with natural proteins that stimulate BDNF. Congratulations to Bruce Spiegleman and his colleagues!