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BDNF plays critical roles in many aspects of cognitive function, including learning and memory formation. A single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in the gene that encodes BDNF causes a substitution of the amino acid valine (Val) by methionine (Met) in a specific region of the DNA where the gene is located. Evidence suggests that carrying the Met allele (Met/Met or Val/Met genotype) is associated with lower BDNF expression.. A 2017 study found that amyloid-beta burden impaired BDNF-related learning and memory.

Amyloid-beta is a toxic 42-amino acid peptide that aggregates and forms plaques in the brain with age. Amyloid-beta is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can occur in middle or old age and is the most common cause of dementia.

The study involved more than 1,000 adults (approximately 55 years at the beginning of the study) who were enrolled in a larger study of Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly 65 percent of the participants were at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, having at least one parent diagnosed with the condition. Each of the participants underwent cognitive assessment and BDNF genotyping five times over a period of four to 11 years. In addition, a small cohort of participants underwent imaging studies to assess amyloid-beta burden.

The genotyping revealed that approximately one-third of the participants were carriers of the Met-66 allele. Compared to Val/Val carriers, Met-66 carriers showed steeper declines in cognitive function. In addition, Met-66 carriers with greater amyloid-beta burden showed an even greater cognitive decline, likely due to lower BDNF expression. These findings suggest that a SNP in the gene for BDNF influences cognitive health and could serve as a therapeutic target against Alzheimer’s disease.

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