[Show abstract][Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Previous studies have shown that a 2-week treatment with 40 mg/kg corticosterone (CORT) in rats suppresses hippocampal neurogenesis and decreases hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels and impairs spatial learning, all of which could be counteracted by voluntary wheel running. BDNF and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) have been suggested to mediate physical exercise-enhanced hippocampal neurogenesis and cognition. Here we examined whether such running-elicited benefits were accompanied by corresponding changes of peripheral BDNF and IGF-1 levels in a rat model of stress. We examined the effects of acute (5 days) and chronic (4 weeks) treatment with CORT and/or wheel running on (1) hippocampal cell proliferation, (2) spatial learning and memory and (3) plasma levels of BDNF and IGF-1. Acute CORT treatment improved spatial learning without altered cell proliferation compared to vehicle treatment. Acute CORT-treated non-runners showed an increased trend in plasma BDNF levels together with a significant increase in hippocampal BDNF levels. Acute running showed no effect on cognition, cell proliferation and peripheral BDNF and IGF-1 levels. Conversely, chronic CORT treatment in non-runners significantly impaired spatial learning and suppressed cell proliferation in association with a decreased trend in plasma BDNF level and a significant increase in hippocampal BDNF levels. Running counteracted cognitive deficit and restored hippocampal cell proliferation following chronic CORT treatment; but without corresponding changes in plasma BDNF and IGF-1 levels. The results suggest that the beneficial effects of acute stress on cognitive improvement may be mediated by BDNF-enhanced synaptic plasticity that is hippocampal cell proliferation-independent, whereas chronic stress may impair cognition by decreasing hippocampal cell proliferation and BDNF levels. Furthermore, the results indicate a trend in changes of plasma BDNF levels associated with a significant alteration in hippocampal levels, suggesting that treatment with running/CORT for 4 weeks may induce a change in central levels of hippocampal BDNF level, which may not lead to a significant change in peripheral levels.