Lion’s mane mushroom shows promise in boosting brain cell growth

Used for centuries, the fungi has compounds that boost nerve growth.
Lion's mane mushrooms on a table.
Researchers found lion's mane mushroom improved brain cell growth and memory in pre-clinical trials. University of Queensland

While killer fungi might be on top of your nightmare list thanks to HBO’s The Last of Us, some mushrooms are really not all that bad—and maybe even beneficial. In fact, lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) have been used to treat ailments and maintain health in traditional Chinese medicine since antiquity, according to Dae Hee Lee, a researcher at South Korean medical equipment company CNGBio Co.

In Europe, the use of mushrooms like lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) dates back to 450 BCE. Hippocrates (a Greek physician) found that it held potential anti-inflammatory properties and could cauterize wounds. 

But how exactly this fungi acts as medicine is pretty unknown. Recently, a team of researchers from Australia and South Korea have discovered an active compound from the edible lion’s mane mushroom that enhances memory and boosts nerve growth. The study published earlier this year in the Journal of Neurochemistry found that in preclinical trials, the mushrooms improve brain cell growth and memory. CNGBio Co supported and collaborated with the team on this study.

[Related: Oyster mushrooms release nerve gas to kill worms before eviscerating them.]

Previous studies have found that its compounds could be used to help regulate blood sugar and reduce high blood pressure, as well as other mental and brain health applications including treating depression, promoting recovery in brain injuries.

“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,” said study co-author Frederic Meunier from the Queensland Brain Institute, in a statement. “Pre-clinical testing found the lion’s mane mushroom had a significant impact on the growth of brain cells and improving memory.”

Lion’s mane mushrooms grow on old or dead broadleaf tree trunks. Like many fungi, they’re composed of a visible fruiting body (the mushroom itself) and the mycelium–the bottom structure that looks like roots. Both the fruiting body and mycelium have compounds with potential health benefits.

The team studied how compounds in the mushrooms affected brain cells and found that it promoted the neurons to extend and connect to one another. “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.

[Related: We may finally know how magic mushrooms help fight depression.]

According to the team, a future application of this compound could be protecting 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,” said co-author Ramon Martinez-Marmol from the University of Queensland, in a statement.