BDNF in sleep, insomnia, and sleep deprivation

Ann Med. 2016;48(1-2):42-51. doi: 10.3109/07853890.2015.1131327. Epub 2016 Jan 13.


The protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a member of the neurotrophin family of growth factors involved in plasticity of neurons in several brain regions. There are numerous evidence that BDNF expression is decreased by experiencing psychological stress and that, accordingly, a lack of neurotrophic support causes major depression. Furthermore, disruption in sleep homeostatic processes results in higher stress vulnerability and is often associated with stress-related mental disorders. Recently, we reported, for the first time, a relationship between BDNF and insomnia and sleep deprivation (SD). Using a biphasic stress model as explanation approach, we discuss here the hypothesis that chronic stress might induce a deregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. In the long-term it leads to sleep disturbance and depression as well as decreased BDNF levels, whereas acute stress like SD can be used as therapeutic intervention in some insomniac or depressed patients as compensatory process to normalize BDNF levels. Indeed, partial SD (PSD) induced a fast increase in BDNF serum levels within hours after PSD which is similar to effects seen after ketamine infusion, another fast-acting antidepressant intervention, while traditional antidepressants are characterized by a major delay until treatment response as well as delayed BDNF level increase. Key messages Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays a key role in the pathophysiology of stress-related mood disorders. The interplay of stress and sleep impacts on BDNF level. Partial sleep deprivation (PSD) shows a fast action on BDNF level increase.

Keywords: BDNF; major depression; rapid-acting antidepressants; sleep deprivation; therapy response.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / blood
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy
  • Humans
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Deprivation / blood
  • Sleep Deprivation / metabolism*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / blood
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor