Mushrooms are part of the world of fungi, and while they are often thought of as plants, they are in a class by themselves. Some mushrooms have more in common with animals than plants, such as a cholesterol-like molecule called ergosterol, and mushrooms have been called a "third food kingdom." Edible fungi have been eaten in many cultures throughout history, which valued mushrooms for various reasons. Many edible mushrooms contain valuable nutrients including vitamin B6, selenium, potassium, and zinc. Other 'poisonous' mushrooms have psychoactive effects. Some studies have suggested that mushrooms have health benefits, like lowering high blood pressure, boosting immunity, keeping the heart healthy, and protecting the brain.
Now a study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience has identified a compound in a type of fungi called lion's mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) that can promote nerve growth and may enhance memory.
While traditional Asian medicine has relied on lion's mane mushroom extracts for centuries, noted Professor Frederic Meunier of the Queensland Brain Institute, the study authors wanted to use a scientific approach to examine the potential impact these extracts have on brain cells.
Pre-clinical tests have suggested that lion's mane mushrooms can improve memory and brain cell growth significantly. This study used neurons growing in culture to assess the effects of compounds that were isolated from those mushrooms. Active compounds were found to promote the extension of neuronal projections, noted Meunier, the corresponding study author.
"Using super-resolution microscopy, we found the mushroom extract and its active components largely increase the size of growth cones, which are particularly important for brain cells to sense their environment and establish new connections with other neurons in the brain," said Meunier.
The study authors were aiming to find bioactive compounds in nature that are able to reach the brain, a sensitive organ that is protected by the selective blood-brain barrier, and influence neuronal growth and memory formation. These findings potentially have applications for the prevention or treatment of neurodegenerative diseases that affect cognition and memory, like Alzheimer's disease, added study co-author Dr. Ramon Martinez-Marmol of the University of Queensland.