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The BDNF gene provides the instructions for making a protein found in the brain and spinal cord called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This protein promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in the growth, maturation (differentiation), and maintenance of these cells. In the brain, the BDNF protein is active at the connections between nerve cells (synapses), where cell-to-cell communication occurs. The synapses can change and adapt over time in response to experience, a characteristic called synaptic plasticity. The BDNF protein helps regulate synaptic plasticity, which is important for learning and memory. 

The BDNF protein is found in regions of the brain that control eating, drinking, and body weight; the protein likely contributes to the management of these functions. Certain common genetic variations (polymorphisms) in the BDNF gene have been associated with an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, and eating disorders as well as playing a role in cognitive decline and Alzheimer's Disease.

Low BDNF levels in the cerebral spinal fluid may be a predictor of future cognitive decline in healthy older subjects, and higher levels may decrease risk. This risk was however modulated by regular participation in 'higher lifestyle activities'.

Increasing expression of BDNF has been achieved with engaging in regular aerobic exercise, curcumin, resveratrol, CoQ10, green tea, phosphatidylserine, B3, vitamin E, piperine, basil, and cinnamon.