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BDNF and Why It Matters in Recovery

In order to understand how to speed up learning, it is important to first be aware of how the brain learns. The brain is made up of billions of brain cells, or neurons, that connect to each other. Some of the connections are strong; others are weak. When a behavior is repeated, the connections associated with those actions get stronger.

For example, when someone who is addicted uses a substance to manage emotional pain, the connection between the cells which reinforce that behavior get stronger. The brain actually changes. Over time, the brain is rewired to make substance abuse the easiest and preferred approach to dealing with difficult emotions.

When someone stops using and begins learning new habits, the connections associated with using begin to weaken. At the same time, as new behaviors are introduced, new connections begin to form. As the new behaviors are repeated, these new connections get stronger. But there's a problem.

It takes time to form these new connections, and many people leave treatment before the rewiring of the brain is strong enough to reinforce the new habits. In other words, people often leave treatment with the desire to practice new habits but without the brain to support this desire. Then, they relapse.

Wouldn't it be great if one could reduce the risk of relapse by speeding up the growth of new cells and new connections? It can be done. Regular moderate exercise stimulates the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), the neurochemical which speeds up the growth of new cells and new connections. See for yourself.

Which brain do you want? Images courtesy of a study conducted at University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.

Above: Brain Cells of Sedentary Subjects: The brown areas show new cells and new connections in the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Below: Brain Cells of Subjects after 8 Weeks of Regular Moderate Aerobic Exercise:Notice that there are significantly more new cells and new connections, as indicated by the brown areas. The cells in this brain are wired to support new habits.

In other words, regular moderate aerobic exercise improves the brain's ability to learn new habits. Counseling, groups, and meetings teach new behaviors to people with SUDs. Regular moderate aerobic exercise speeds up the process of turning these new behaviors into new healthy habits.

And BTW, this applies not just to people battling addiction, but to anyone trying to learn and adopt new habits. Every time you exercise, you give your brain a shot of BDNF. You grow more new cells and more new connections. You reach your learning and behavior goals more quickly.

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