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Memorize That Mushroom: Lion’s Mane

Memorize That Mushroom: Lion’s Mane

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Food for cognitive health

My grandmother lived to be 98 years old, and her mind remained sharp to the very end. When asked to divulge her secret, she proudly explained that she completed a New York Times crossword puzzle every day in order to keep her brain active. (Luck may also have been a factor, since genetics and environment play a role in disease risks and longevity.)

Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as my grandmother: A third of people age 85 or older develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD).[1] This condition is characterized by the death of neurons in the forebrain, hippocampus, and cerebral cortex, causing a loss of neuroplasticity (the ability to adapt to experiences).

Due to the enormous burden of AD for individuals and society, scientists are actively researching ways to prevent this disease. Among the factors that we can control, cognitively stimulating activities (such as grandma’s puzzles), physical activity, and a healthy diet can be helpful in staving off cognitive decline.[2],[3],[4]

Additionally, certain key nutrients and botanicals can protect brain neurons from damage. In a previous post we reviewed the importance of B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Today we’ll look at the effects of lion’s mane, an amazing medicinal mushroom that supports neuroplasticity.

People used to believe that the brain became fixed after a certain age, but newer research has shown that the brain is capable of changing and reorganizing in response to experiences throughout life.[5]

The history of Lion’s mane research

Lion’s mane has been shown to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain.

Mushrooms often used in traditional Chinese medicine include Hericium, Grifola, Cordyceps, Pleurotus and Ganoderma species. These fungi are renowned for their effects on nerve, brain, and immune system health.[6]

In one study, the lifestyle of Chinese seniors living in Singapore between 2011 and 2017 was analyzed. Compared with participants who consumed mushrooms less than once per week, those who consumed two or more portions of mushrooms per week had a 57% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.[7] Interestingly, this association was independent of age, gender, education, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, physical activities, and social activities. “Our cross-sectional data support the potential role of mushrooms and their bioactive compounds in delaying neurodegeneration,” state the authors.

The mushroom known as Hericium erinaceus (also called lion’s mane, because of its distinctive appearance) has been extensively studied in this regard.[7] Lion’s mane contains potent natural substances known as erinacines and hericinanes, which are not found in any other fungus or plant.[8]

Researchers found that the constituents of lion’s mane were capable of stimulating neuron growth in cells isolated from the brain, spinal cord, and retina.[9],[10],[11],[12] Lion’s mane also increases the production of myelin, an insulating layer that forms around nerves and facilitates neurotransmission.[8],[13]

Lion’s mane also has been shown to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain.[11],[14],[15],[16] Since NGF is essential for neural plasticity, the induction of NGF may explain the anti-aging effects of lion’s mane.[9],[17],[18],[19],[20]

The link between Lion’s mane and cognitive health

In a mouse model of aging, lion’s mane delayed brain degeneration and significantly improved learning and memory.

In animal models, Lion’s mane has numerous positive effects:

  • In mice, lion’s mane increased neurotransmission and improved memory.[16],[20],[21] Animals given lion’s mane were able to navigate a maze more quickly than those who were not supplemented.
  • In a mouse model of aging, lion’s mane delayed brain degeneration and significantly improved learning and memory.[22]
  • In frail aged mice, lion’s mane stimulated neuron formation, improved memory, reduced brain atrophy, and boosted the expression of SIRT1, a protein linked to longevity.[23],[24]
  • In animals with nerve injuries or stroke, lion’s mane promoted nerve growth and enhanced functional recovery.[14],[25],[26],[27]
  • In fruit flies and mice, lion’s mane increased lifespan by up to 32% and 23%, respectively.[28]
  • In aging mice fed diets that were high in sugar and fat, lion’s mane increased brain NGF levels and improved learning and memory.[29]

Mushroom consumption may lower the risk of depression

In addition to promoting NGF synthesis, mushrooms contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that can influence mood. In mice subjected to stress, lion’s mane reversed the animals’ depressive-like behaviors.[30] The effects of lion’s mane on mood have also been demonstrated in human trials. A randomized, placebo-controlled study of 30 post-menopausal women found that after taking 2,000 mg of lion’s mane daily for four weeks, feelings of depression and anxiety were decreased compared to those taking a placebo.[31]

In another study, 77 subjects affected by overweight or obesity were recruited for a placebo-controlled clinical trial.[32] Patients were recruited only if they had a mood and/or sleep disorder and/or were binge eating. The volunteers consumed three lion’s mane capsules daily, with each capsule providing 400 mg of the mushroom mycelium and 100 mg of the fruiting body. Eight weeks of lion’s mane supplementation helped ameliorate depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. These studies suggest that lion’s mane has significant effects on mood in humans.

Lion’s mane improves cognitive function in animal models

The consumption of lion’s mane stimulated changes associated with the formation of new neurons.

Lion’s mane has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.[22],[34],[35],[36]

A 2011 study of H. erinaceus in an Alzheimer’s model yielded remarkable results.[37] Mice were first injected with amyloid-beta peptides, producing amyloid plaque formation similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. The mice were challenged by a maze designed to assess their memory. Mice that developed amyloid plaque could no longer memorize the maze. But when they were fed a diet containing five percent dried lion’s mane mushrooms for three weeks, the mice performed significantly better and spent more time exploring new objects in their environment.

In frail aged mice, daily supplementation with H. erinaceus reversed the age-related decline of recognition memory (the ability to recognize previously-encountered objects.[23] Brain analysis showed that the consumption of lion’s mane stimulated changes associated with the formation of new neurons.

Lion’s mane improves cognitive function in humans

The patients who took Lion’s mane had reduced structural deterioration in several brain regions.

Preliminary studies suggest that lion’s mane may even help reverse cognitive deficits in people with early Alzheimer’s disease.

One double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that lion’s mane improved cognitive functioning compared to controls.[38] The men and women took four tablets three times daily, with each tablet containing either placebo or 250 mg of lion’s mane dry powder. At weeks 8, 12 and 16 of the trial, the group that received H. erinaceus showed significantly increased scores on a cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group. However, when subjects stopped taking H. erinaceus their scores began to fall, reflecting scores similar to those that were untreated, indicating the need for continued use.

In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel-group comparative study of 31 participants with an average age of 61 years, the daily consumption of 800 mg of H. erinaceus fruiting body dry powder alleviated memory decline and improved cognitive function over a 12-week period.[39]

In a long-term placebo-controlled trial, the effects of lion’s mane supplementation were investigated in 41 patients diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.[40] The subjects received three 350 mg capsules of lion’s mane daily or a placebo. Cognitive assessments, eye exams, and brain imaging by MRI were conducted throughout the 49-week study period. There was a statistically significant improvement in Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score in the supplemented group, while the MMSE continued to decline in the placebo group. (Higher MMSE scores represent better cognition.)

Brain imaging revealed that the patients who took Lion’s mane had reduced structural deterioration in several brain regions, providing evidence that mushroom supplementation changed the brain architecture and reduced atrophy.[40]  Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.

In sum, researchers believe that lion’s mane could be useful as a potent protective agent for neurodegenerative disorders.[41] This amazing mushroom not only represents a promising adjuvant to conventional treatments for cognitive decline, but may even help extend human healthspan – the number of years during which we remain mentally and physically healthy.


If you enjoyed this article, you also may be interested in the following posts:

Fighting COVID-19, Pneumonia, and Inflammation with Medicinal Mushrooms
Combating Age-Related Immune Decline: Can Nutrition Help?
Alzheimer’s disease: The role of diet, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids in cognitive health
Mushrooms for Whole Immune Support


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