Exercise increases serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor in patients with major depressive disorder

J Affect Disord. 2017 Jun;215:152-155. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.03.034. Epub 2017 Mar 18.


Background: Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has been implicated in the pathogenesis of major depressive disorder (MDD). Existing data on exercise treatment in people with MDD are inconsistent concerning the effect of exercise on BDNF pointing either to increased or unaltered BDNF concentrations. However, studies in non-depressed persons demonstrated a significant effect on resting peripheral BDNF concentrations in aerobic training interventions. Given the lack of clarity mentioned above, the current study aimed at examining the effect of adjunctive exercise on serum BDNF levels in guideline based treated patients with MDD.

Methods: 42 depressed inpatients were included, and randomized either to a 6 week structured and supervised exercise intervention plus treatment as usual (EXERCISE, n=22), or to treatment as usual (TAU, n=20). BDNF serum concentrations were assessed before and after the intervention in both study groups with established immunoassays.

Results: Serum BDNF slightly decreased in the TAU group, whilst there was an increase in BDNF levels in the exercise group. There was a significant time x group effect concerning sBDNF (p=0.030) with repeated ANOVA measures with age and BMI as covariates, suggesting an increase in BDNF concentrations in the EXERCISE group compared to TAU.

Limitations: Though there was no statistic difference in the antidepressant medication between EXERCISE and TAU potential interactions between exercise and medication on the effects of exercise in BDNF cannot be excluded. Gender was not considered as a covariate in ANOVA due to the small number of objects.

Conclusions: Exercise training given as adjunct to standard guideline based treatment appears to have additional effects on BDNF serum concentrations in people with MDD. Our results add further evidence to the beneficial effects of exercise in the treatment of MDD.

Keywords: Aerobic exercise; BDNF; Exercise intervention; Major depressive disorder.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / blood
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inpatients / psychology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pilot Projects
  • Young Adult


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • BDNF protein, human