I will be investigating how Hericium Erinaceus, otherwise known as the Lion’s mane mushroom, can enhance brain function. Does it improve neurogenesis? Does it improve the myelination of brain nerve cells (a.k.a neurons)? Which parts of the brain does does Lion’s Mane improve? And how exactly does Lion’s Mane work? These are some of the questions that I aim to answer in this article.
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Fertilizer for the Neurons
So the first question is how can Lion’s Mane benefit the brain? Well, scientists conducted tests with the Lion’s Mane mushroom to figure out how it exerts a therapeutic effect on neurons:
It was found that an exo-biopolymer purified from the liquid culture broth of Hericium erinaceus mycelium enhanced the growth of rat adrenal nerve cells. The polymer also improved the extension of the neurites of PC12 cell. Its efficacy was found to be higher than those from known nerve growth factors such as Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain-Derived Nerve Factor (BDNF). …While the polymer improved both cell growth and neurite extension, NGF and BDNF did only outgrowth of the neurites. …It was also confirmed that the polymer reacted with the nerve cells within 30 min after adding the sample, compared to 80 min in adding two other growth factors. Number of neurite-bearing cells remained relatively steady in adding the polymer even when the cell growth started to be decreased. It was interesting that the polymer effectively delayed apoptosis of PC12 cells by dramatically reducing the ratio of apoptotic cells to 20% from 50% of the control
Exo-biopolymer is referring to the organic material on the outside. Mycelium is referring to the vegetative part of a fungus colony- which looks like a bunch of roots. Normally, Mycelium is hidden underground, only to grow the fruiting bodies of the mushroom head for certain occasions.
So in the study mentioned above, scientists made purified liquid extract of the root-like structure of Lion’s Mane, and gave it to a rat’s nerve cells. This extraction applied to a rat’s nerve cells showed enhanced growth. If Lion’s Mane can enhance the growth of nerve cells of one part of the body, wouldn’t it be able to enhance the growth of nerve cells in other places- like the brain?
Furthermore, the extraction enhanced “the extension of the neurites of a PC12 cell”. PC12 cells are rat neurons used for understanding brain diseases. And neurites refer to any projection from the cell body of a neuron- either an axon or a dendrite.
Note that both axons and dendrites are used by neurons to form connections (synapses) for communicating with other neurons.
An extraction of Lion’s Mane shows to enhance the extensions of a nerve cell- that means Lion’s mane helps nerve cells develop faster. This effect can have a therapeutic benefit if a patient’s brain nerve cells aren’t developing properly- like Lewy bodies in Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, the Lion’s Mane extract was found to be more potent than Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain-Derived Nerve Factor (BDNF) in stimulating nerve cells. NGF and BDNF only affects the “outgrowth of neurites”, or the development of a neuron’s dendrites & axons. Lion’s Mane does the same, in addition to spurring the growth of new nerve cells and increasing the synthesis of NGF.
Moreover, the Lion’s Mane extract is faster acting, taking only 30 minutes to affect the rat nerve cell, compared to the 80 minutes that NGF and BDNF took.
Lion’s mane also had the effect of reducing programmed cell death; the control had 30 percent more cells die compared to nerve cells treated with Lion’s Mane.
Lion’s Mane Enhances Learning & Memory
To summarize, Lion’s Mane improves the growth rate of new nerve cells, the development of axon and dendrite connections (synapses) between neurons, and survival of neurons. This is relevant to the human brain, because the brain is basically a mesh of about 100 billion neurons with trillions of interconnections. Each connection transmits a signal, and somehow that produces what we call “thoughts”.
So in theory, because Lion’s Mane improves the overall health of neurons, Lion’s Mane may therefore improve the overall health of the brain given that the brain is heavily composed of nerve cells.
That also means the functions of the brain also improves, like learning, memory formation, thought processes, and long term memory. But the question remains, how exactly?
We know that we are able to acquire & retain new information by studying, but what are the changes that exactly occur in the brain that allow us to learn new things?
Our brain doesn’t just keep accumulating more brain cells- our head doesn’t just keep getting bigger overtime, after all.
At the biological level, memories are thought to be represented by vast interconnected networks of neural synapses in the brain, with synaptic plasticity (strength of the synapse) playing a major part in our ability to learn and recall information from memory.
Acts of learning also improves the survival, Long Term Potentiation (LTP), and myelination of neurons in the hippocampus. Note that LTP is when the synapses or connections between neurons become stronger.
The enhanced survival of neurons is related to the new memories formed during the learning experience, and both LTP & neural myelination allows us to better recall that information. That’s because LTP allows neurons to fire more easily, and myelin both speeds up & preserves a signal sent through a neuron. LTP and increased neural myelination of the hippocampus translates to having an easier time recalling previous experiences and formulating thoughts.
Lion’s Mane shows similar benefits to neurons, supporting the notion that this mushroom may improve the brain function and a person’s ability to learn.
In fact, scientific studies have shown that Lion’s Mane improves the myelination of neurons.
Lion’s Mane Helps Neuron Myelination
Myelin is a membrane that wraps around the axons of a nerve cell such that it is also called the myelin “sheath”. The myelin functions to insulate axons and accelerate the speed of a nerve’s signal or action potential through the axon.
The importance of the myelin sheath can be understood when looking at neuro-degenerative diseases caused by the dysfunction of the myelin sheath. For example, Alzheimer disease and multiple sclerosis are both caused by the myelin falling apart.
Multiple sclerosis is caused by the immune system attacking the brain itself- destroying myelin as a result.
And Alzheimers disease occurs by the abnormal breakdown of myelin that promotes the buildup of toxic amyloid-beta fibrils that eventually deposit in the brain and become the plaques which have long been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Then these amyloid products in turn destroy more and more myelin, disrupting brain signaling and leading to cell death and the classic clinical signs of Alzheimer’s.
In both Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis, you can see that both the cognitive function and the brain’s control over the body becomes massively weakened. These diseases show how important myelin is for our brain to function properly, and that being able to preserve and remyelinate our neurons is important for maintaining a healthy cognitive function. Given that Lion’s Mane is shown to speed up a neuron’s myelination, it holds value as a substance for preserving our cognition.
So far, there are quite a few studies showing evidence that Lion’s Mane is beneficial for neurons in vitro- in other words, in the petri dish. But what about in real life? What cognitive benefits do people see from actually eating the mushroom? Well according to one study, Lion’s Mane improved the cognition of Japanese Dementia patients. But there still needs to be more research done, more clinical trials testing the effectiveness of the Lion’s Mane mushroom for treating neuro-degenerative diseases.
Where to Find Lion’s Mane Supplements
- Genius Mushroom – Lions Mane, Cordyceps and Reishi – Immune System Booster & Nootropic Brain Supplement
- Lions Mane Mushroom Certified Organic Extract Powder 60g by Real Mushrooms
- Host Defense – Lion’s Mane Capsules, Memory & Nerve Support, 60 count
- Effect of an exo-polysaccharide from the culture broth of Hericium erinaceus on enhancement of growth and differentiation of rat adrenal nerve cells – [NIH]
- Neurotrophic properties of the Lion’s mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia – [NIH]
- Motor Skill Learning Induces Changes in White Matter Microstructure and Myelination – [JN]
- The influence of Hericium erinaceus extract on myelination process in vitro – [PDF] [NIH]
- Breakdown of Myelin Implicated in Alzheimer’s, UCLA Research Shows – [UCLA]
- Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial – [NIH]