The brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays an important role in activity-dependent synaptic plasticity, which underlies learning and memory. In a sample of 948 younger and older adults, we investigated whether a common Val66Met missense polymorphism (rs6265) in the BDNF gene affects the serial position curve—a fundamental phenomenon of associative memory identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus more than a century ago. We found a BDNF polymorphism effect for backward recall in older adults only, with Met-allele carriers (i.e., individuals with reduced BDNF signaling) recalling fewer items than Val homozygotes. This effect was specific to the primacy and middle portions of the serial position curve, where intralist interference and associative demands are especially high. The poorer performance of older Met-allele carriers reflected transposition errors, whereas no genetic effect was found for omissions. These findings indicate that effects of the BDNF polymorphism on episodic memory are most likely to be observed when the associative and executive demands are high. Furthermore, the findings are in line with the hypothesis that the magnitude of genetic effects on cognition is greater when brain resources are reduced, as is the case in old age.

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