- Lion’s mane mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
- A new study looked at how the compounds in these mushrooms affect brain cells.
- There are some early indications that lion’s mane might have cognitive benefits.
Mushrooms: everyone’s favorite fungus.
Around the world, mushrooms are enjoyed for their culinary uses. They’re an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and they’re also a heart-healthy food thanks to their low amounts of sodium, fats, and cholesterol.
And, in the case of Hericium erinaceus—commonly referred to as lion’s mane mushrooms for their shaggy appearance—they might just be brain food, too.
The idea isn’t completely novel; traditional medicine practices throughout Asia and India have been known to use lion’s mane mushrooms for hundreds of years. Researchers wanted to use modern techniques to determine what benefits these mushrooms might have on brain cells, and there were some encouraging results.
But before you start putting together a new and delicious mushroom-centric diet, let’s take a closer look at how the study was conducted, what it found, and what experts recommend.
In this study, scientists were specifically looking to find whether the compounds naturally found in lion’s mane mushrooms could cause neurons, the primary type of cell in your brain, to grow and form new connections.
If this could be accomplished, one of the effects might include improved memory.
The researchers started by extracting a compound called N-de phenylethyl isohericerin (NDPIH) from the mushrooms. Once isolated, NDPIH, as well as its derivative, hericene A, were tested in a lab.
The tests were performed using neurons from the hippocampus. This region of the brain is believed to be responsible for learning and forming memories.
During laboratory tests, hippocampal neurons grew after they were exposed to NDPIH and hericene A. These cells were also found to have larger growth cones.
A neuron is shaped a little bit like a tree, with the main cell body acting as the trunk and extensions called dendrites and axons branching off. These branching sections communicate with the branches of other nearby neurons, which essentially act as the pathway for all brain chemistry.
A growth cone is a cluster of hairlike filaments on the ends of these branches. You could picture them as similar to the fluffy white seeds on the head of a dandelion. On a neuron, these filaments are “feeling” for signals from other neurons, so that as a brain cell’s dendrites and axons grow, they grow toward other neurons instead of at random.
So when the researchers found that the compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms caused hippocampal neurons to have larger growth cones, they were excited by the results. It meant that the neurons were not only growing, but growing more efficiently and forming more connections.
In addition to laboratory tests, the researchers also performed memory tests on mice that had been fed these compounds. In some tests, mice were repeatedly exposed to a simple maze, while in other tests mice were allowed to explore both new and familiar objects.
In both tests, results showed that mice given lion’s mane extracts demonstrated improved spatial memory over their control-group counterparts.
While the initial results are positive, there’s a big difference between how much time a mouse spends in a maze and your own ability to remember complex information.
And while the study had a focus on memory, the implications reach further. If the compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms could consistently lead to neuronal growth in humans, they could potentially be used to prevent, treat, or even reverse the effects of brain damage due to injuries or degenerative disorders.
So how excited should we be about these results? Well, that might depend on who you ask, but cautious optimism seems to be the consensus.
In an interview with Healthline, Dr. Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, said, “It’s very hard to extrapolate whether a study in which Korean mice were fed lion’s mane mushroom and then explored a new object faster has any clinical application to humans.”
“In my world, nothing has ever been shown to regrow central nervous system nerves,” he added.
“Unfortunately, if someone breaks their back in the year 2023, I am not going to advise they take a vitamin to walk again. I am awaiting a medication that makes central nervous system nerves regrow, and lion’s mane has not been shown to do this in any animals or humans,” Segil said.
Kalipada Pahan, PhD, professor of neurology, biochemistry and pharmacology at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, gave Healthline a different perspective.
“Lion’s mane mushroom is good for stimulating neural nerve growth. It has been widely studied, and a number of studies have shown it is good for cerebral and sensory development and neurite outgrowth,” said Pahan.
“It has been shown to be useful for spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, as well as some diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s,” Pahan added.
Experts did agree about one thing, though: compounds like NDPIH and hericene A both need additional preclinical testing in humans before being relied upon as a treatment.
Lion’s mane is currently available in two forms.
You can buy the mushroom itself to be used in cooking. As long as they’re properly washed like other produce, they’re perfectly safe for most people to eat (although it’s possible for some people to experience an allergic reaction).
Lion’s mane can also be purchased in the form of supplements, either as capsules or as powders.
But should you consume it? And what should your expectations be?
“If a patient asked me if they should take lion’s mane, I would reply I don’t think it is going to help and I don’t think it is going to hurt. You are welcome to try it,” said Segil.
“I would advise you try it for 30 or 90 days and then tell me if you notice any difference. I would say the same thing to a patient I was starting on a medication for memory loss or dementia that would require a prescription. I don’t think there can be any harm from lion’s mane,” Segil advised.
“Lion’s mane is not something patients get in rehab centers, hospitals, or doctors’ offices in the year 2023. Hericerin derivatives in this study…showed some benefits to cells looked at under a microscope, and to make the jump to this being helpful in humans is pretty big,” Segil said.
“It’s OK to take as a supplement,” said Pahan.
“Studies have found it beneficial to use with neurological disorders. It can prevent or slow progression. It’s hard to say it can reverse a progressive condition such as Parkinson’s disease,” Pahan added.
Segil summarized his feelings this way: “These studies stimulate conversations about compounds and drugs that can regrow damaged nerves or protect nerves from damage.”
This new study adds to that conversation and provides a new avenue of research for drugs that could help with a wide array of brain disorders.
But are lion’s mane mushrooms a cure-all?
No. Not today, in any case.
That being said, if you want to eat lion’s mane mushrooms anyway, they’re still an extraordinarily healthy food. And if you have any upcoming plans to visit a simple maze, there’s a small chance they might just give you a little leg up.