Neurotrophic Factor BDNF, Physiological Functions and Therapeutic Potential in Depression, Neurodegeneration and Brain Cancer

Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Oct 21;21(20):7777. doi: 10.3390/ijms21207777.


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of the most distributed and extensively studied neurotrophins in the mammalian brain. BDNF signals through the tropomycin receptor kinase B (TrkB) and the low affinity p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR). BDNF plays an important role in proper growth, development, and plasticity of glutamatergic and GABAergic synapses and through modulation of neuronal differentiation, it influences serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission. BDNF acts as paracrine and autocrine factor, on both pre-synaptic and post-synaptic target sites. It is crucial in the transformation of synaptic activity into long-term synaptic memories. BDNF is considered an instructive mediator of functional and structural plasticity in the central nervous system (CNS), influencing dendritic spines and, at least in the hippocampus, the adult neurogenesis. Changes in the rate of adult neurogenesis and in spine density can influence several forms of learning and memory and can contribute to depression-like behaviors. The possible roles of BDNF in neuronal plasticity highlighted in this review focus on the effect of antidepressant therapies on BDNF-mediated plasticity. Moreover, we will review data that illustrate the role of BDNF as a potent protective factor that is able to confer protection against neurodegeneration, in particular in Alzheimer's disease. Finally, we will give evidence of how the involvement of BDNF in the pathogenesis of brain glioblastoma has emerged, thus opening new avenues for the treatment of this deadly cancer.

Keywords: BDNF; depression; glioblastoma; miRNAs; neurodegeneration; neurogenesis; synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Brain Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Brain Neoplasms / pathology
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / physiology*
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / pathology
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / pathology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neuroprotective Agents / pharmacology
  • Oncogenes


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • MicroRNAs
  • Neuroprotective Agents
  • BDNF protein, human