BDNF Responses in Healthy Older Persons to 35 Minutes of Physical Exercise, Cognitive Training, and Mindfulness: Associations with Working Memory Function

J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;55(2):645-657. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160593.


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has a central role in brain plasticity by mediating changes in cortical thickness and synaptic density in response to physical activity and environmental enrichment. Previous studies suggest that physical exercise can augment BDNF levels, both in serum and the brain, but no other study has examined how different types of activities compare with physical exercise in their ability to affect BDNF levels. By using a balanced cross over experimental design, we exposed nineteen healthy older adults to 35-minute sessions of physical exercise, cognitive training, and mindfulness practice, and compared the resulting changes in mature BDNF levels between the three activities. We show that a single bout of physical exercise has significantly larger impact on serum BDNF levels than either cognitive training or mindfulness practice in the same persons. This is the first study on immediate BDNF effects of physical activity in older healthy humans and also the first study to demonstrate an association between serum BDNF responsivity to acute physical exercise and working memory function. We conclude that the BDNF increase we found after physical exercise more probably has a peripheral than a central origin, but that the association between post-intervention BDNF levels and cognitive function could have implications for BDNF responsivity in serum as a potential marker of cognitive health.

Keywords: Aging; brain-derived neurotrophic factor; cognitive function; cognitive training; crossover design; exercise; geriatrics; intervention study; mindfulness; neuroplasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood*
  • Cognition
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Healthy Aging / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mindfulness / methods*
  • Teaching


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor