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The Brain Health Benefits of Lion's Mane: Unraveling the Fungal Frontier of Cognitive Enhancement

Written by: TFM Co. Staff

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Time to read 11 min

Hericium erinaceus, commonly known as Lion's Mane, is a distinctive fungus that fruits on hardwood trees across North America, Europe, and Asia. Its cascading white spines, resembling a shaggy mane, make it easily identifiable to foragers and mycologists alike. However, Lion's Mane's true significance lies not in its appearance, but in its potential impact on brain health.


Long valued in traditional medicine, particularly in parts of East Asia, Lion's Mane has recently caught the attention of neuroscientists and cognitive researchers. Its bioactive compounds, notably hericenones and erinacines, demonstrate intriguing effects on neural health, from stimulating the production of nerve growth factors to potentially supporting cognitive function.

As populations age and neurodegenerative diseases become more prevalent, the search for effective, natural cognitive enhancers has intensified. Lion's Mane, with its unique biochemical profile, stands out as a subject of particular interest. This essay examines the current state of research on Lion's Mane's effects on brain health, exploring both its mechanisms of action and the empirical evidence supporting its use.

From its influence on neuroplasticity to its potential role in mood regulation, Lion's Mane offers a complex and nuanced picture of fungal-brain interaction. As we delve into the details, we'll critically assess what is known, what remains to be discovered, and the implications for cognitive health and neuroscience at large.

Key Takeaways

Lion's Mane contains compounds that stimulate NGF and BDNF production in the brain.

These compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier , unlike many other nootropics

Clinical studies show promise for improving memory and cognition, especially in older adults.

Lion's Mane may support myelin sheath health , enhancing neural transmission .

I. The Neurotrophic Maestro: NGF and BDNF

At the core of Lion's Mane's cognitive promise are two proteins: Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). These neurotrophins act as molecular conductors, orchestrating the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons.

NGF, discovered by Rita Levi-Montalcini in the 1950s, is crucial for neuronal survival and differentiation, particularly in areas like the basal forebrain—a region vital for attention and memory. BDNF complements this role by enhancing synaptic plasticity, the basis for learning and memory formation.

Lion's Mane appears to stimulate the production of both NGF and BDNF. A 2008 study by Mori et al. demonstrated that compounds from Lion's Mane induced NGF synthesis in cultured astrocytes (16). This finding is significant because while NGF itself cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, Lion's Mane contains smaller molecules—hericenones and erinacines—that can, effectively acting as "keys" to unlock NGF production within the brain.

The implications are profound. Decreased levels of NGF and BDNF have been associated with neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease (5, 6). By potentially boosting these neurotrophins, Lion's Mane offers a novel approach to maintaining cognitive health.

Think of NGF and BDNF as gardeners in the brain's neural forest. NGF nurtures existing trees (neurons), while BDNF encourages new growth and connections between trees. Lion's Mane, in this analogy, provides these gardeners with better tools, potentially leading to a healthier, more resilient neural landscape.

III. Hericenones and Erinacines: Lion's Mane Brain Health Benefactors

Lion's Mane owes much of its cognitive potential to two families of compounds: hericenones and erinacines. These molecules, unique to the Hericium genus, are the focus of intense research due to their neurotrophic properties.

Hericenones, found primarily in the fruiting body of Lion's Mane, are aromatic compounds first isolated in 1990. Erinacines, on the other hand, are cyathin diterpenoids predominantly present in the mycelium , first described in 1994. Both compound groups have demonstrated the ability to stimulate NGF synthesis , but their true significance lies in their capacity to cross the blood-brain barrier.

This barrier, a highly selective semipermeable border of endothelial cells, protects the brain from potentially harmful substances in the bloodstream. While it's an essential defense mechanism, it also poses a challenge for delivering therapeutic agents to the brain. NGF itself, being a large protein, cannot traverse this barrier. Hericenones and erinacines, however, are small enough to pass through, acting as molecular emissaries that can trigger NGF production directly within the brain.

The ability of these compounds to stimulate NGF production in situ sets them apart from many other natural nootropics. For instance, while compounds like curcumin or resveratrol have demonstrated neuroprotective properties, they don't directly stimulate NGF production in the same manner. This unique mechanism of action places Lion's Mane in a category of its own among cognitive-enhancing natural products.

Research by Kawagishi et al. (2) has shown that certain erinacines are particularly potent NGF inducers. Erinacine A, for example, has demonstrated the ability to increase catecholamine and NGF content in the locus coeruleus and hippocampus of rats (3). To understand the significance of this, imagine the brain as a vast, interconnected city. The locus coeruleus would be the central alarm system, regulating alertness and attention , while the hippocampus serves as the city's archive, crucial for memory formation and emotional processing. Erinacine A acts like a specialized urban planner, simultaneously upgrading the alarm system and expanding the archive, enhancing the city's overall function and resilience.

IV. Cognitive Function: Memory, Focus, and Beyond

Clinical studies on Lion's Mane have begun to illuminate its potential for enhancing cognitive function, particularly in the realms of memory and focus.

A pivotal double-blind, placebo-controlled trial by Mori et al. (17) in 2009 involved 30 Japanese adults aged 50-80 with mild cognitive impairment. Participants consuming 3 grams of Lion's Mane powder daily for 16 weeks demonstrated significant improvements in cognitive function compared to the placebo group. Intriguingly, these benefits waned after supplementation ceased.

Saitsu et al. (40) corroborated these findings in a 2019 follow-up study. Their research, involving 31 participants taking 3 grams of Lion's Mane daily, showed improvements in cognitive functions, with notable enhancements in perceptual speed and spatial memory.

Nagano et al. (32) conducted a smaller study in 2010, focusing on the effects of Lion's Mane on depression and anxiety. While primarily targeting mood, they observed improvements in cognitive functions as a secondary outcome, particularly in participants with mild cognitive impairment.


A 2018 study by Mori et al. (1) explored the effects of Lion's Mane on cognitive function in mice with Alzheimer's disease. The results showed improved cognitive function and reduced amyloid β plaque burden in the hippocampus, suggesting potential neuroprotective effects.

Li et al. (2018) investigated the effects of polysaccharides extracted from Lion's Mane on cognitive impairment induced by scopolamine in mice. Their findings indicated that these polysaccharides could mitigate cognitive deficits and oxidative stress.

While direct human studies on focus are limited, Lion's Mane's ability to stimulate NGF production in the locus coeruleus suggests a potential mechanism for improved concentration (3). This aligns with anecdotal reports of enhanced focus among many Lion's Mane users.

The implications for age-related cognitive decline are particularly intriguing. A 2016 review by Phan et al. summarised several studies suggesting Lion's Mane's potential in preventing or treating neurodegenerative diseases, highlighting its neurotrophic and neuroprotective properties.

However, it's important to note that many of these studies are preliminary or conducted in animal models. Larger, long-term human trials are needed to fully elucidate Lion's Mane's effects on cognitive function across diverse populations.

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V. Neuroprotection: Shielding the Mind

Lion's Mane's potential neuroprotective properties have garnered significant interest in the scientific community, particularly in the context of neurodegenerative conditions and myelin sheath health.

Several studies have investigated Lion's Mane's role in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. Mori et al. (1) demonstrated that Lion's Mane extract reduced amyloid β plaque burden in the hippocampus of mice with Alzheimer's -like symptoms. These plaques, akin to cellular debris clogging the brain's intricate machinery, are a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Their reduction could potentially slow the disease's relentless march.

A 2016 study by Tsai-Teng et al. explored Lion's Mane's potential in combating Parkinson's disease . They found that pre-treatment with erinacine A , a compound found in Lion's Mane, could protect against MPTP-induced neurotoxicity in mice, a model commonly used to study Parkinson's disease. In essence, erinacine A acted as a cellular bodyguard, shielding neurons from the assault of neurotoxins.

Lion's Mane's impact on myelin sheath health is particularly intriguing. Myelin, the insulating layer around nerve fibres, is crucial for efficient neural transmission . Kolotushkina et al. (18) demonstrated that Lion's Mane extract could stimulate the myelination process in vitro. If neurons are the brain's electrical wires, myelin is their insulation, and Lion's Mane appears to aid in maintaining this critical coating.

Further supporting this, a 2003 study by Kolotushkina et al. (19) showed that Lion's Mane extract could accelerate the process of myelination in mature myelinating fibres. This enhancement of the brain's 'wiring' could potentially boost the speed and efficiency of nerve impulse transmission

VI. The Evidence Landscape: What We Know and What We Need to Learn

The current body of research on Lion's Mane presents a mosaic of promising findings, yet with clear gaps that future studies must address. Like piecing together an ancient fresco, we have tantalising fragments of knowledge, but the complete picture remains elusive.

In vitro and animal studies have provided a strong foundation, elucidating mechanisms by which Lion's Mane may influence brain health . The ability of hericenones and erinacines to stimulate NGF production , as demonstrated by Kawagishi et al. (2), offers a plausible pathway for Lion's Mane's cognitive effects .

Similarly, studies showing its potential to reduce amyloid β plaques (1) and support myelination (18, 19) provide compelling leads for neuroprotection research.

Human clinical trials, while fewer in number, have yielded encouraging results. The studies by Mori et al. (17) and Saitsu et al. (40) demonstrating improved cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment are particularly noteworthy. However, these studies, with their relatively small sample sizes and specific demographic focus, represent more of a prologue than a conclusive chapter in our understanding.

Several limitations in the current research landscape warrant attention:

  • Sample size and diversity: Many studies have involved small, homogeneous groups. Larger trials with diverse populations are needed to establish broader applicability.
  • Duration: Most studies have been short-term. Given the chronic nature of cognitive decline , long-term studies are crucial to understand Lion's Mane's sustained effects.
  • Dosage and form: Optimal dosages and the most effective forms of Lion's Mane (e.g., whole fruiting body vs. mycelium extracts ) remain to be determined.
  • Mechanism of action in humans: While we have insights from animal studies, the precise mechanisms by which Lion's Mane affects human cognition need further elucidation.
  • Interaction effects: Studies on how Lion's Mane interacts with other supplements , medications, or lifestyle factors are scarce.

Future research should address these gaps. Longitudinal studies tracking cognitive function over years of Lion's Mane supplementation could provide valuable insights into its long-term effects and potential for preventing age-related cognitive decline . Neuroimaging studies could offer a window into how Lion's Mane affects brain structure and function in real-time.

Moreover, investigations into Lion's Mane's potential synergistic effects with other cognitive-enhancing compounds or lifestyle interventions could uncover more comprehensive approaches to brain health.


In essence, while the current evidence paints an intriguing portrait of Lion's Mane's potential, much of the canvas remains blank. Filling in these gaps will require a concerted effort from researchers across disciplines, from molecular biology to clinical neuroscience . As this research progresses, we may yet reveal Lion's Mane to be a powerful tool in our cognitive health arsenal – or we may find its effects more nuanced than initially hoped. Either way, the journey of discovery promises to be as fascinating as the fungus itself.

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Conclusion

  • Lion's Mane mushroom contains unique compounds, hericenones and erinacines , that can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate NGF and BDNF production.
  • These neurotrophic factors are crucial for neuronal health , plasticity , and cognitive function , offering potential benefits for memory , focus , and overall brain health .
  • Clinical studies have shown promising results in improving cognitive function, particularly in older adults with mild cognitive impairment .

  • Lion's Mane demonstrates potential neuroprotective properties, including the ability to reduce amyloid β plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease and support myelin sheath health.
  • The mushroom's unique mechanism of action sets it apart from other natural nootropics , making it a promising subject for further research in cognitive enhancement and neurodegenerative disease prevention.
  • While more extensive human trials are needed, current evidence suggests Lion's Mane could be a valuable tool in supporting cognitive health and potentially mitigating age-related cognitive decline .

FAQs

How long does it take to see the effects of Lion's Mane supplements?

While individual responses vary, many users report noticeable improvements in cognitive function within 2-4 weeks of consistent use. However, for optimal results, it's recommended to take Lion's Mane supplements for at least 8-12 weeks.

What's the difference between Lion's Mane fruiting body and mycelium extracts?

Fruiting body extracts contain higher concentrations of hericenones, while mycelium extracts are richer in erinacines. Our supplements use a combination of both to provide a full spectrum of beneficial compounds for cognitive support.

Can Lion's Mane supplements be taken with other nootropics or medications?

Lion's Mane is generally safe to combine with other supplements. However, as with any supplement, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before combining it with medications or if you have any pre-existing health conditions.

What's the recommended dosage for Lion's Mane supplements?

Our Lion's Mane supplements are formulated based on clinical studies. The recommended daily dosage is typically 1000-3000mg of our concentrated extract, which provides therapeutic levels of active compounds.

Are there any side effects associated with Lion's Mane supplementation?

Lion's Mane is generally well-tolerated. However, some individuals may experience mild digestive discomfort when first starting supplementation. If you experience any adverse effects, we recommend reducing the dosage or discontinuing use and consulting a healthcare professional.

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Citations

  • Kawagishi H, Zhuang C, Shnidman E. The anti-Dementia effect of Lion's Mane mushroom and its clinical application. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, 2004.
  • Kawagishi H et al. Erinacines E, F, and G, stimulators of nerve growth factor (NGF)-synthesis, from the mycelia of Hericium erinaceum. Tetra Lett. 1996 37(41):7399-402.
  • Shimbo M, Kawagishi H, Yokogoshi H. Erinacine A increases catecholamine and nerve growth factor content in the central nervous system of rats. Nutrition Research. ;25(6):617-623.
  • Covaceuszach S, Capsoni S, Ugolini G, Spirito F, Vignone D, Cattaneo A. Development of a non invasive NGF-based therapy for Alzheimer's disease. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2009;6(2):158-70.
  • Schulte-Herbrüggen O, Jockers-Scherübl MC, Hellweg R. Neurotrophins: from pathophysiology to treatment in Alzheimer's disease. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2008;5(1):38-44.
  • Mori K, Obara Y, Hirota M, Azumi Y, Kinugasa S, Inatomi S, Nakahata N. Nerve growth factor-inducing activity of Hericium erinaceus in 1321N1 human astrocytoma cells. Biol Pharm Bull. 2008;31(9):1727-32.
  • Mori K, Inatomi S, Ouchi K, Azumi Y, Tuchida T. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2009;23(3):367-72.
  • Kolotushkina EV, Moldavan MG, Voronin KY, Skibo GG. The influence of Hericium erinaceus extract on myelination process in vitro. Fiziol ZH. 2003;49(1):38-45.
  • Grygansky AP, Moldavan MG, Kolotushkina OV, Skibo GG. Hericium erinaceus (Bull.: Fr.) Pers. extract effect on nerve cells. Int J Med Mushr. 2001;3(2-3):152.
  • Nagano M, Shimizu K, Kondo R, Hayashi C, Sato D, Kitagawa K, Ohnuki K. Reduction of depression and anxiety by 4 weeks Hericium erinaceus intake. Biomed Res. 2010 Aug;31(4):231-7.
  • Chinese Pharmacopoeia, 2010. Beijing:Chinese Medicine Science and Technology Publishing House