Miracle-Gro for brain cells

Illlustration of growing brain

That’s how scientists have described BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein produced by the body that helps brain cells grow and withstand stress. A lack of BDNF is thought to lie behind depression and several neurodegenerative diseases.

Emory pathologist Keqiang Ye has discovered a compound that can mimic the effects of BDNF on brain cells. The compound holds promise as a foundation for a new class of brain-protecting drugs.

For most of the 20th century, scientists commonly believed that people were born with all the brain cells they would ever have. However, with the discovery of neurogenesis—the creation of new brain cells—in adults, that belief recently has changed. BDNF appears to play a critical role in that process.

This potential for treating neurologic diseases with BDNF has led to clinical trials, in which the protein is injected into patients’ spinal fluid. But the side effects—sensory alterations, weight loss, or nausea—are unpleasant.

At this point, “the trouble with BDNF is one of delivery,” Ye says. “It’s a protein, so it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, and it degrades quickly.”

The discovery of easy-to-deliver molecules that have the same effects as BDNF gives Ye a way around that obstacle. He and his team have identified a compound, 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, that can partially prevent the death of nerve cells in animal models of seizure, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. They are now conducting additional studies in animals to see which forms of this compound are likely to be the least toxic and the most stable. 

7,8-dihydroxyflavone is a member of the flavonoid family of compounds, many of which have antioxidant properties and are found naturally in foods ranging from cherries to soybeans. “It is possible that many people injest small amounts of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone in their diets,” Ye says. “But drinking green tea or eating apples may not give you enough for a sustained effect.” —Quinn Eastman

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