Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Brain Fact Friday on “Building a Faster, Stronger, Resilient Brain, by Understanding Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)”

March 19, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, for our third Brain Fact Friday and episode #114.

This week's Brain Fact Friday, you will learn:

✔︎ What is BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and what are it's benefits to the brain.
✔︎ What we should all understand about BDNF with Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease and how our brains learn.
✔︎ Exercise, Nutrition and BDNF: What's the Connection?
✔︎ Why Putting the Body Under Stress is a Good Thing.
✔︎ Sleep, Stress and the BDNF Factor.

See past episodes here


This week, we recorded 2 ground-breaking interviews with 3 decades of leadership expertise with Denise J Cooper on her book, Remarkable Leadership Lessons[i], and Dr. John Ratey,[ii] an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an internationally recognized expert in Neuropsychiatry. Stay tuned for these interviews coming next week, but for today, here’s Brain Fact Friday.

Did you know that trace brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF[iii]  that Dr. Ratey says is like “Miracle-Gro (or fertilizer) for the Brain” is “the important link that explains why simple exercise can have such a profound effect on cognition and well-being[iv] and that “eating foods with folate, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fats increases BDNF in the brain, just as exercise does?”

Dr. Ratey and I dive deep into his 2 books Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain[v], and Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being on our interview coming next week where he explains the importance of BDNF as it relates to diet and exercise (which are 2 of the top 5 health staples we have been focused on the podcast since last year). His book does dive deep into sleep as a health staple, but that’s another story.  We will take a closer look at sleep in a later episode.

But First, What is BDNF?

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)[vi] is a protein that’s found in the brain and other parts of the body “involved in plastic changes related to learning and memory [vii] and higher-level cognitive abilities. This signaling protein is the reason why you can sit at your desk with a heightened sense of focus and concentration, after you exercise. Dr. Ratey taught me that “movement places demands on the brain, just as it does on muscle, and so the brain releases BDNF which triggers the growth of cells to meet the increased mental demands of movement”[viii] and the whole brain benefits from this movement.


  • BDNF helps with learning, memory, or other higher-level thinking.
  • It grows new neurons and synapses in the brain while also supporting the survival of existing neurons.
  • It increases neurogenesis and can help to heal our brain after a traumatic brain injury.[ix]


  • BDNF is reduced in the brain of someone who has developed Alzheimer’s Disease[x] and Parkinson’s Disease[xi] and explains why someone with Alzheimer’s has their memory weakened.
  • BDNF is involved in how long it takes us to learn something[xii]. A child’s rate of learning is higher than an adult, because of their highly plastic brain. This explains why learning a second language is much easier when you are younger, versus trying to learn a new language as an adult.


  1. Exercise and Nutrition releases BDNF:

Dr. Ratey, in his book Go Wild explains that researchers were looking at ways to prevent the aging brain and found that “seniors who exercised developed significantly larger hippocampal volumes (the part of the brain responsible for memory processing) improving their memory.”[xiii]  They found that exercise also “prevented a loss of grey matter overall (which is common in aging) and improved brain function.” (Page 107). Since we are all aging, it makes sense to me that this research is relevant to all of us, not just the aging brain, proving again, of the importance of Exercise and Nutrition as one of the health staples we should all be aware of.

  1. Hormesis or Putting the Body Under Stress releases BDNF:

Fitness expert Thomas Delauer talks about fasting and the ketogenic diet as another way to increase BDNF.[xiv] Delauer explains the importance of this protein to the development of our brain, and that BDNF doesn’t just grow new neurons and synapses, but it protects existing neurons. Whenever we put our body under stress, like during fasting, or exercising, or even think about when you go into the heat in a sauna, BDNF upregulates as a result.  This is known as hormesis- the process by which a mild or acute stressor increases resistance to other stressors and increases the health, vitality and resilience of that organism. (Ari Whitten).  The body realizes it needs to increase BDNF to protect it, proving again, that exercise, and intermittent fasting, are important health staples.

  1. Controlling Stress, Improving Sleep and Raise Your BDNF levels.

Getting enough sleep (at least 7-8 hours) should be on our list as a top 5 health staples that we’ve been talking about for so long on this podcast. When we add in the fact that research shows that obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (that Dr. Perlmutter proved to be the precursor for Alzheimer’s disease), it’s clear that this should be a priority for all of us. If you have never measured your sleep to see exactly how much you are getting, I highly suggest starting to do this. It will shock you when you start to see how much sleep you are actually getting. I have been testing the Fisher Wallace medical device from episode #108[xv] for the past 18 days to see if it can improve the amount and quality of sleep I am getting. I will be testing this device for the rest of the month, and will share the results, but I can tell you right now that I saw and felt a difference after day 1 of using this device. If you are not getting enough sleep, or are stressed, it will show up in your brain, and with your BDNF levels.[xvi]

Remember “That Which Does Not Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Our bodies and brains are designed to release the chemicals needed to keep us healthy, but we must put ourselves in the right environment for this to occur. This episode goes right back to the 5 health staples[xvii] that we reviewed last December and is an excellent reminder of the importance of putting our health and well-being first. Our lives kind of depend on it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Brain Fact Friday, and some quick tips on the importance of the protein BDNF for building a better brain, while improving our resilience. Stay tuned for EPISODE #115 with Denise Cooper on Remarkable Leadership Lessons, and #116 with Dr. Ratey where we dive deep into the benefits of exercise and nutrition and the brain. See you next week.


140+ Natural Ways to Increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor

How Exercise Reprograms the Brain Nov. 1, 2018 by Ashley Yeager

Ari Whitten  


[i] Denise J Cooper


[iii] How to Increase BDNF: 10 Ways to Rescue Your Brain (Sept. 17, 2020)

[iv] Go Wild: Eat fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being by John J. Ratey, MD and Richard Manning (June 3, 2014)

[v] Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD (January 10, 2008)

[vi] Understanding BDNF and its Importance to Brain Health Published on YouTube April 10, 2018

[vii] Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor: A Key Molecule for Memory in the Healthy and Pathological Brain (August 07, 2019) by Magdalena Miranda, Juan Facundo Morici, Maria Belen Zanoni, and Pedro Bekinschtein

[viii] Go Wild: Eat fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being by John J. Ratey, MD and Richard Manning (June 3, 2014) Page 103  

[ix] Therapeutic potential of BDNF Published Jan. 2017 by Mary Wurzelmann, Jennifer Romeika, Dong Sun

[x] BDNF ameliorates learning deficits in a rat model of Alzheimer’s

[xi] Relationship of circulatory BDNF with cognitive deficits in people with Parkinson’s disease

[xii] Understanding BDNF and its Importance to Brain Health Published on YouTube April 10, 2018

[xiii] Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being by John J Ratey, MD and Richard Manning (June 3, 2014)

[xiv] What is BDNF? It’s like fertilizer for the brain. Uploaded to YouTube May 14, 2019

[xv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #108 with Kelly Roman from Fisher Wallace Labs on “Wearable Medical Devices for Anxiety, Depression, and Sleep/Stress Management.”

[xvi] The Link Between Sleep, Stress and BDNF April 2017 by Karen Eckert, J Beck, S Brand, U Hemmeter, M Hatzinger, E Holsboer-Trachsler

[xvii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast BONUS EPISODE Dec. 2020 with Andrea Samadi on “A Deep Dive into the Top 5 Health Staples and Review of Seasons 1-4)

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