Promoting neuroplasticity for motor rehabilitation after stroke: considering the effects of aerobic exercise and genetic variation on brain-derived neurotrophic factor

Phys Ther. 2013 Dec;93(12):1707-16. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20130053. Epub 2013 Aug 1.


Recovery of motor function after stroke involves relearning motor skills and is mediated by neuroplasticity. Recent research has focused on developing rehabilitation strategies that facilitate such neuroplasticity to maximize functional outcome poststroke. Although many molecular signaling pathways are involved, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has emerged as a key facilitator of neuroplasticity involved in motor learning and rehabilitation after stroke. Thus, rehabilitation strategies that optimize BDNF effects on neuroplasticity may be especially effective for improving motor function poststroke. Two potential poststroke rehabilitation strategies that consider the importance of BDNF are the use of aerobic exercise to enhance brain function and the incorporation of genetic information to individualize therapy. Converging evidence demonstrates that aerobic exercise increases BDNF production and consequently enhances learning and memory processes. Nevertheless, a common genetic variant reduces activity-dependent secretion of the BDNF protein. Thus, BDNF gene variation may affect response to motor rehabilitation training and potentially modulate the effects of aerobic exercise on neuroplasticity. This perspective article discusses evidence that aerobic exercise promotes neuroplasticity by increasing BDNF production and considers how aerobic exercise may facilitate the acquisition and retention of motor skills for poststroke rehabilitation. Next, the impact of the BDNF gene val66met polymorphism on motor learning and response to rehabilitation is explored. It is concluded that the effects of aerobic exercise on BDNF and motor learning may be better exploited if aerobic exercise is paired more closely in time with motor training. Additionally, information about BDNF genotype could provide insight into the type and magnitude of effects that aerobic exercise may have across individuals and potentially help guide an individualized prescription of aerobic exercise to enhance motor rehabilitation poststroke.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / physiology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / genetics
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Recovery of Function / genetics
  • Recovery of Function / physiology*
  • Stroke / metabolism
  • Stroke Rehabilitation*


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor