Mike Sandrock: All I want for my birthday is more BDNF

Every time the Earth completes its annual run around the sun and another birthday rolls around, you are likely to be asked, as I was recently, “What would you like for your birthday?”

After attending a Conference on World Affairs panel last week titled “The Science of Health Care,” I have a ready answer: some BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

The importance of this protein, which is produced when we run, was one of the takeaways from a fascinating discussion between Harvard neurologist Marie Pasinski and Mark Thomas, an addiction researcher from the University of Minnesota, ably moderated by University of Colorado Boulder undergraduate Emma Levy. The panel was subtitled “Evidence-based information can help us to live longer, better, healthier lives,” an appealing enough topic to pack the University Memorial Center West Ballroom on a wet, rain-turning-to-snow spring morning.

Both researchers emphasized the idea that adopting a “brain-healthy lifestyle,” as Pasinski, an expert in preventing dementia, calls it, can lead to adaptive changes in the brain. This is termed neural plasticity. According to Pasinski, a key to preventing Alzheimer‘s and other forms of dementia is staying mentally active, to “step outside our comfort zone” and to continue learning new tasks and face new challenges. This takes us back to the state our brains were in when we were young — when we, and our brains, were immersed daily in new experiences. New neural connections are formed to absorb new information.

“Learn something new,” Pasinski, author of “Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You,” urged the audience. “Challenge yourself.”

Doing so, she said, can lead to an increase in BDNF, a protein that promotes neural growth. This particular neurotrophic factor — a term referring to a broad range of molecules that are important in nerve-cell growth — is also produced when we exercise, said Thomas, adding, “I was wondering when BDNF was going to come up,” before going on to explain how simple changes in our behavior can lead to increased “synaptic plasticity.”

Synapses are the connecting points where two nerve cells — called neurons — meet and through which impulses travel. According to Thomas, learning causes physical changes in specific pathways in our brain neurons, something he was taught in high school biology and which, when he learned it, set him on his life course studying the brain. What‘s nice about running or taking on a new, difficult challenge that results in BDNF being produced is that the new neurons can help us with more learning, better memories, and less chance of getting dementia.

Pasinski then gave the audience a list of nine modifiable risk factors that can lead to dementia, an umbrella term for a decrease in mental functioning that includes Alzheimer‘s. The No. 1 risk factor, she said, was a low level of education; others include midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, smoking and social isolation.

The good news is that the recommended behavioral changes are not difficult to incorporate into our quotidian lives. High up on the list, Thomas reiterated in presenting some self-care advice, is exercise, in part because the new neurons stimulated by BDNF can lead to “increased cognitive functioning.” This means, he said, that exercise is a form of self-care and is by now “real science that you can trust.”

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is likely a new term for many runners, as I saw from chatting with a couple of running buddies Friday. Both are educated, intelligent, accomplished athletes and followers of health news. And yet, when I told them about the World Affairs panel, both asked, “What‘s BDNF?”

Most of the audience questions to Pasinski and Thomas were about diet and nutrition, and Pasinski was direct and likely deflating for those looking for a miracle food or supplement. She was blunt in saying that supplements don‘t work and that since they are often not regulated by the FDA, we cannot even be sure what they contain. Pasinski said she often gets asked by her patients in Boston about the latest “new fad diet.” Forget about them. Her advice? “There really is nothing better” than the “Mediterranean Diet,” which centers on avoiding processed food and most red meat while eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, because “our brains are two-thirds fat.”

Finally, Pasinski advises us to cultivate new habits, because “the brain is a creature of habit.” Keep learning, because challenges and learning are “wonderful for the brain. It is never too late to change the brain for the better. There is lots we can do.”

For many of us here in Boulder, living the healthy-brain lifestyle starts with running. That is why this morning, I will be out with friends up on a trail, receiving my birthday gift — another dose of BDNF, unwrapping it as I run through the pines, over rocks and into the wind, ready to face the challenge of another trip around the sun.

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