Nerve Growth Factor: What It Is, Plus How to Activate It

November 9, 2023

Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a type of protein that has the ability to promote the growth, repair, and survival of nerve cells (neurons) in the peripheral nervous system—namely the brain and spinal cord. This protein is essential for repairing damaged nerves after an injury, enhancing neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself), and preventing nerve cells from dying.

In the 1950s, scientists Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were studying the growth of nerve cells in chicks (1). They noticed that when they inserted certain tumors under the skin of the chicks, the nerves around the tumors grew much more than usual. Scientists had previously thought nerve cells couldn't grow once a person (or animal) reached a certain age.

Levi-Montalcini and Cohen wanted to figure out why these tumors were causing nerve growth. They carefully studied the tissue around the tumors and isolated a substance promoting nerve cell growth. They called this substance Nerve Growth Factor.

This discovery was groundbreaking because it showed for the first time that nerve cells could grow and be influenced by specific molecules. In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on NGF (2). NGF's discovery opened up new avenues of research in understanding how nerve cells develop and the potential for developing treatments for various neurological conditions.

In this article, we break down the science behind nerve growth factor, its groundbreaking discovery, the health complications that arise when levels are low, and how you can boost your NGF levels naturally.

What Is Nerve Growth Factor?

Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) is a protein—specifically a neurotrophic factor. You can think of neurotrophic factors as “growth and survival helpers” of nerve cells (neurons). They act as "fertilizer" for neurons, helping them stay alive, grow, and work properly (3). NGF was one of the first neurotrophic factors to be discovered and extensively studied.

What Are the Functions of Nerve Growth Factor?

Now that you have a general idea of what NGF is, you may wonder how it works in your body. Thankfully for you, it stays quite busy. Some of NGF’s key functions include (4):

  • Nerve Development: NGF is involved in the growth and development of neurons during embryonic and early postnatal development.
  • Nerve Survival: NGF acts as a "survival signal" for neurons, sending a molecular message that instructs these cells not to undergo apoptosis (cellular death).
  • Nerve Regeneration: NGF can help repair and regrow damaged nerve cells. This is particularly helpful for those who have suffered an injury to the central or peripheral nervous system. Examples of these injuries include cuts, burns, diabetic neuropathy, eye injuries, age-related nerve degeneration, vehicle collisions, or a crush injury to the chest or head from a contact sport.
  • Neuroplasticity: NGF plays an impressive role in the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and adapt to new experiences (also called neuroplasticity). This is an important factor for learning and memory. 
  • Nervous System Function: NGF ensures that sensory and motor neurons can transmit signals effectively. When sensory neurons are working as they should, information from your sensory receptors (touch, temperature, pain, or smell) is delivered to your central nervous system. When your motor neurons are working correctly, you’re able to perform precise and coordinated movements like picking up a coffee cup, playing a musical instrument, and kicking a soccer ball.

What Happens When My Nerve Growth Factor Isn’t Working Correctly?

If your NGF isn’t functioning optimally, it can potentially contribute to issues in your nervous system. Here are a few specific neurological conditions that may be linked to NGF dysregulation.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects the brain, causing memory loss, cognitive decline, and behavioral changes. Research suggests that the dysregulation of NGF may contribute to the loss of neurons and the formation of characteristic brain abnormalities like amyloid plaques (lumps of sticky protein that build up in the brain) and neurofibrillary tangles (tangled threads inside brain cells that can disrupt the normal functions of the cells) (5). 

Reduced levels of NGF or impaired NGF signaling have been observed in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. This can affect the survival and function of cholinergic neurons (a type of nerve cell), which play a critical role in memory and cognition.

In a 2015 study involving 10 Alzheimer’s patients receiving NGF gene transfer therapy, research showed that even in a brain that's degenerating (meaning some brain cells are dying), the remaining brain cells can still respond to growth factors. When they respond, they do a few things:

  • They grow new branches (like sprouting),
  • They get bigger (cell hypertrophy), and
  • They become more active and functional.

What's interesting is that when growth factors are used as therapy, this sprouting effect can last for a long time, up to 10 years after the treatment. This suggests that using growth factors to treat neurodegenerative disorders is safe and should continue to be studied as a potential way to help people with these conditions (6).

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a genetic disorder that leads to the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. Dysregulation of NGF has been implicated in the pathophysiology of Huntington's disease (7). It can affect the survival and function of neurons in the striatum, a brain region that is particularly vulnerable in this condition.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy refers to damage or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves, which can lead to symptoms like tingling, numbness, and pain in the extremities. In some cases, dysregulation of NGF and its receptors in the peripheral nervous system can contribute to the development and progression of peripheral neuropathy (8).

Diabetic Neuropathy

In diabetes, long-term high blood sugar levels can lead to nerve damage, a condition known as diabetic neuropathy. In small human studies, low blood levels of NGF have been associated with diabetic neuropathy. However, more human studies are needed (9). Reduced NGF levels can impair nerve repair and regeneration, contributing to the sensory and motor deficits experienced by individuals with diabetes (10).

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Depression & Mood Disorders

There is evidence to suggest that NGF dysregulation may be involved in mood disorders such as depression (11). NGF plays a role in maintaining the health and function of neurons in brain regions associated with mood regulation. Changes in NGF levels or signaling pathways may impact the survival and plasticity of these neurons, potentially contributing to mood disorders.

Understanding the role of NGF in these conditions is essential for developing potential treatments. Researchers are investigating therapeutic approaches that involve enhancing NGF function or using NGF-like molecules to promote nerve cell survival and repair. However, these treatments are still in the experimental stages, and more research is needed to fully determine the complex relationship between NGF dysregulation and neurological diseases.

5 Ways to Boost Your NGF Levels

Boosting your NGF levels is essential for promoting the health and maintenance of your nerve cells. Here are five ways to potentially increase NGF levels.

1. Diet

Your diet plays a massive role in not only your levels of NGF but also your overall health. Focusing on foods that provide nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and zinc can help promote NGF production and neural health. 

Here are some examples of foods to add to your diet:

  • Fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and krill oil)
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Avocados
  • Leafy greens (like spinach, kale, and chard)
  • Nuts and seeds
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2. Exercise

Regular physical activity has been shown to increase NGF levels. Aerobic exercise, in particular, can stimulate the production of NGF. Activities like running, swimming, and even walking may be beneficial. Exercise also has numerous other health benefits, including improved mood and cognitive function.

3. Stress Management

Chronic stress can have a negative impact on NGF levels. Engage in stress-reducing techniques such as:

Reducing stress can help maintain healthy NGF levels and support overall mental well-being.

4. Quality Sleep

Sleep is vital in maintaining brain health—including regulating NGF levels. While you sleep, the brain undergoes essential processes such as memory consolidation, toxin clearance, and neural repair. All of these processes are influenced by NGF.

Research has shown that NGF levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, with higher levels occurring during nighttime sleep (12). This increase in NGF during sleep is believed to support the brain's restorative processes and facilitate memory consolidation.

Moreover, sleep deprivation has been shown to impact NGF levels negatively. This leads to impaired cognitive function, reduced memory, and increased susceptibility to stress (13).

5. Supplements

Lion’s Mane 

Lion’s mane mushrooms produce two families of compounds: erinacines and hericenones (14). These compounds are essential for nerve growth factors, aiding in learning and memory. These compounds also have the amazing ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier, stimulating the growth of neurons and protective cells. This means it can improve overall mental performance.


Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, is one of nature’s best ingredients for the brain. It has been found to improve memory and protect against neurodegenerative diseases. One way it does this is by boosting NGF production.

Preliminary studies have shown that curcumin can increase the expression of NGF and its receptor, CB1 (15).

In one study, researchers found that curcumin increased the expression of NGF in brain cells and increased the number of synapses formed between neurons (16). More human studies however are needed.

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Vitamin D3 Supplements

With regular sugar blood levels, vitamin D3 has been shown to boost nerve growth factors in the body. According to a study in 2014, vitamin D3 can aid in regulating NFG. (17). 

NativeNote: If you have high blood sugar levels,  vitamin D3 may not be as efficient in synthesizing NFG.

It's important to note that while these lifestyle strategies may support NGF levels and overall neurological health, they are not a guaranteed cure or treatment for specific neurological conditions. If you have a medical condition or are concerned about your neurological health, it's crucial to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and treatment options.

Kat Kennedy
Article by

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is the Fitness and Nutrition Editor at NativePath. With a NASM CPT, NCSF CPT, and NCSF Sports Nutrition Certification, she is passionate about giving people the tools they need to feel healthy, strong, and confident.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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