Traditional Chinese Medicine and other traditional medicines, including our own, have used mushrooms medicinally since pre-history. Western researchers have studied some of these powerful adaptogens in more recent years, for their vast array of uses, and are confirming some of the age-old claims.

One species that has been known for its potential mental health benefits is the lion’s mane or hericium erinaceus mushroom. Recent research has demonstrated its ability to reduce the risk of depression and limit damage from Alzheimer’s disease.

An exciting new study by an international team of scientists published this week in the Journal of Neurochemistry highlights further properties of this edible fungus species, also known as yamabushitake or hou tou gu. The researchers identified compounds that could enhance memory and boost nerve growth.

Lion’s mane mushrooms have a distinct appearance, with white, shaggy spines that hang in a cluster, resembling either a beard or a lion’s mane. They grow naturally on dead trees and have a native range spanning swaths of Asia, Europe, and North America but are also widely cultivated.. Lead author Frédéric Meunier from the Queensland Brain Institute explains, “Extracts from these lion’s mane mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine in Asian countries for centuries, but we wanted to scientifically determine their potential effect on brain cells.”

The researchers focused on a compound called N-de phenylethyl isohericerin, found in the lion’s mane mushroom, as well as its hydrophobic derivative known as hericene A. They tested the effects of these extracts on cultured neurons from rat embryos and observed a “clear neurotrophic effect.” The extracts resulted in doubly long axons and more than triple the number of neurites, which are small projections from a neuron that can grow into fully functional axons or dendrites.

The neurotrophic effects of compounds isolated from Hericium erinaceus on cultured brain cells were measured in laboratory tests. The active compounds were, surprisingly, found to promote neuron projections, extending and connecting to other neurons.

The study also involved behavioral experiments on mice to assess how the fungal compounds affect the rodents’ memory. The results indicate that “dietary supplementation with H. erinaceus crude extract significantly enhanced recognition memory.”

Interestingly, it doesn’t take much of the extract to achieve this result. Reducing the concentration of hericene A by a factor of 50 in the crude extract did not appear to affect its influence on recognition memory.

Previous studies on lion’s mane mushrooms have suggested that their ability to boost memory might be due to their promotion of neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, and this recent study appears to support that theory, note the researchers, who conclude that their results indicate that the compound hericene A is a “potent memory enhancer.”

This insight could be particularly beneficial to aging populations grappling with cognitive decline, as well as people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It may also become an important part of men and women in mid-life who find their memories are not what they used to be.

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