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Keywords:

  • autonomic nervous system;
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor;
  • cognition;
  • diabetes;
  • exercise;
  • neurogenesis;
  • synaptic plasticity

Overweight sedentary individuals are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some neurological disorders. Beneficial effects of dietary energy restriction (DER) and exercise on brain structural plasticity and behaviors have been demonstrated in animal models of aging and acute (stroke and trauma) and chronic (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases) neurological disorders. The findings described later, and evolutionary considerations, suggest brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays a critical role in the integration and optimization of behavioral and metabolic responses to environments with limited energy resources and intense competition. In particular, BDNF signaling mediates adaptive responses of the central, autonomic, and peripheral nervous systems from exercise and DER. In the hypothalamus, BDNF inhibits food intake and increases energy expenditure. By promoting synaptic plasticity and neurogenesis in the hippocampus, BDNF mediates exercise- and DER-induced improvements in cognitive function and neuroprotection. DER improves cardiovascular stress adaptation by a mechanism involving enhancement of brainstem cholinergic activity. Collectively, findings reviewed in this paper provide a rationale for targeting BDNF signaling for novel therapeutic interventions in a range of metabolic and neurological disorders.