Developmental thyroid hormone insufficiency and brain development: a role for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)?

Neuroscience. 2013 Jun 3;239:253-70. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.11.022. Epub 2012 Nov 29.


Thyroid hormones (TH) are essential for normal brain development. Even modest degrees of TH disruption experienced in utero can result in neuropsychological deficits in children despite normal thyroid status at birth. Neurotrophins have been implicated in a host of brain cellular functions, and in particular, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has a well documented role in development and function of the nervous system. A number of laboratories have reported the effects of TH administration or severe deprivation on neurotrophin expression in brain. This review provides an overview and update of recent developments in the thyroid field as they relate to the nervous system. Secondly, we describe an animal model of low level TH insufficiency that is more relevant for studying the neurological consequences associated with the modest TH perturbations of subclinical hypothyroidism, or that would be anticipated from exposure to environmental contaminants with a mode-of-action that involves the thyroid. Finally, we review the available in vivo literature on TH-mediated alterations in neurotrophins, particularly BDNF, and discuss their possible contribution to brain impairments associated with TH insufficiency. The observations of altered BDNF protein and gene expression have varied as a function of hypothyroid model, age, and brain region assessed. Only a handful of studies have investigated the relationship of neurotrophins and TH using models of TH deprivation that are not severe, and dose-response information is sparse. Differences in the models used, species, doses, regions assessed, age at assessment, and method employed make it difficult to reach a consensus. Based on the available literature, the case for a direct role for BDNF in thyroid-mediated effects in the brain is not compelling. We conclude that delineation of the potential role of neurotrophins in TH-mediated neuronal development may be more fruitful by examining additional neurotrophins (e.g., nerve growth factor), moderate degrees of TH insufficiency, and younger ages. We further suggest that investigation of BDNF invoked by synaptic activation (i.e., plasticity, enrichment, trauma) may serve to elucidate a role of thyroid hormone in BDNF-regulated synaptic function.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Thyroid Hormones / deficiency*


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Thyroid Hormones