The effect of exercise on hippocampal volume and neurotrophines in patients with major depression--a randomized clinical trial

J Affect Disord. 2014 Aug;165:24-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2014.04.041. Epub 2014 Apr 23.


Background: The hippocampal volume is reduced in patients with major depression. Exercise leads to an increased hippocampal volume in schizophrenia and in healthy old adults. The effect of exercise on hippocampal volume is potentially mediated by brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). The aim of this trial was to assess the effect of an aerobic exercise intervention on hippocampal volume and serum BDNF, VEGF, and IGF-1 in patients with major depression.

Methods: Patients were randomized to an aerobic exercise intervention (n=41) or a control condition (n=38). Both interventions consisted of three supervised sessions per week during a three months period.

Results: Post-intervention the increase in maximal oxygen uptake was 3.90 ml/kg/min (SD 5.1) in the aerobic exercise group and 0.95 ml/kg/min (SD 6.2) in the control group (p=0.03). The hippocampal volume, BDNF, VEGF, or IGF-1 did not differ between the two groups. Post-hoc we found a positive association between change in hippocampal volume and verbal memory (Rho=0.27; p=0.05) and change in hippocampal volume and depressive symptoms (Rho=0.30; p=0.03).

Limitations: Participation was low in both groups corresponding to an average participation of one session per week.

Conclusion: Despite a significant increase in maximal oxygen uptake, a pragmatic exercise intervention did not increase hippocampal volume or resting levels of neurotrophines in out-patients with mild to moderate major depression. Trial identifier: (NCT00695552).

Keywords: BDNF; Depression; Exercise; Hippocampus; Memory; Neurogenesis.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / blood
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / pathology*
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Middle Aged
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / blood*
  • Young Adult


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I

Associated data