A protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is considered critical to the development and maintenance of the central nervous system. Levels decline gradually with age, but a recent study suggests that a variant of the gene that produces BDNF can hasten that process.
The study included 144 experienced U.S. male pilots over the age of 40 who took a Federal Aviation Administration-approved flight simulator test three times over two years. The participants included recreational pilots, certified flight instructors and airline pilots.
Using blood and saliva samples from the pilots, the researchers also conducted genetic analyses, looking for the gene that produces the brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). The researchers divided the pilots into two groups — those with at least one copy of a BDNF gene that contained the methionine, or “met,” variant and those without the variant. Previous research has linked the “met” variant with increased risk of depression, stroke, anorexia nervosa, anxiety-related disorders, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.
The flight simulator test scores of pilots in both groups fell over the three-year study period, but the rate of decline in the “met” group was much steeper according to the researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. There was a doubling of the rate of decline in performance on the exam among met carriers during the first two years of follow-up.
The study was published online Oct. 18 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
The results may also apply to the general public, for example in the ability to operate complex machinery. Whether or not you have the “met” BDNF gene, the one clearly established way to ensure increased BDNF levels in your brain is physical activity. As they say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”.