The active compound in lion’s mane mushrooms could boost nerve growth and enhance memory, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry.
Professor Frederic Meunier from Australia’s Queensland Brain Institute said the team identified new active compounds from the mushroom, called Hericium erinaceus, while exploring the mushroom’s effect on the brain. “Extracts from these so-called ‘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,” Meunier said in a statement.
In pre-clinical testing, the researchers found the lion’s mane mushroom had a significant impact on the growth of brain cells and improving memory. Laboratory tests measured the neurotrophic effects of compounds isolated from Hericium erinaceus on cultured brain cells and found that the active compounds promote neuron projections, extending and connecting to other neurons.
“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,” Meunier said.
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Co-author Ramon Martinez-Marmol of the University of Queensland said the discovery has applications that could treat and protect against neurodegenerative cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our idea was to identify bioactive compounds from natural sources that could reach the brain and regulate the growth of neurons, resulting in improved memory formation,” Martinez-Marmol said in a statement.
Dae Hee Lee from healthcare company CNGBio Co, which has supported and collaborated on the research project, said the properties of lion’s mane mushrooms had been used to treat ailments and maintain health in traditional Chinese medicine since before the Middle Ages.
“This important research is unraveling the molecular mechanism of lion’s mane mushroom compounds and their effects on brain function, particularly memory,” Lee said in a statement.
Mushrooms may lower risk of depression
This isn’t the first time researchers linked mushrooms with certain health benefits. A study published in the scientific publication Journal of Affective Disorders in 2021 found that people who eat mushrooms could have a lower risk of experiencing depression. Because mushrooms contain numerous bioactive compounds that may be associated with reduced anxiety, including B12, nerve growth factor, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory agents, the researchers from Penn State University hypothesized that mushroom consumption is associated with a lower risk of depression.
“Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of the amino acid ergothioneine—an anti-inflammatory which cannot be synthesized by humans,” lead researcher Djibril Ba said in a statement. “Having high levels of this may lower the risk of oxidative stress, which could also reduce the symptoms of depression.”
Replacing meat with mushrooms
As it turns out, mushrooms also have added benefits when it comes to the environment. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and published in the scientific journal Nature, shifting the world’s meat production from cattle to fungi-based microbial fermentation to create what is sometimes known as mushroom meat or mycoprotein can have extraordinary effects on the planet.
PIK found that replacing 20 percent of traditionally produced beef with fungi-based meat produced using microbial fermentation results in a 50-percent reduction in deforestation by 2050, along with other environmental improvements. “The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source,” the lead author of the study, Florian Humpenöder, said in a statement.
“The substitution of ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could considerably reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system.”
Microbial fermentation is not a new concept and has been used in the food industry for decades. In 2002, the United States Food and Drug Association (FDA) greenlit the use of mycoprotein in food. Currently, Quorn is the company best known for using mycoprotein to make its products, which include meatless chicken, burgers, and grounds.
And this sector of protein is growing. Earlier this year, food technology startup Meati Foods opened its first industrial-scale production facility—called the “Mega Ranch”—in Thornton, CO where the company is capable of producing 45 million pounds of mushroom meat.
Meati’s products include vegan whole-cut steaks and carne asada, along with plant-based alternatives to chicken cutlets in classic and breaded varieties—which are now being made at the new Mega Ranch.