Eating certain mushrooms may help people retain cognitive aptitude as they age by reducing inflammation and, in some cases, perhaps rewiring damaged brain circuits.
A new study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food analyzed a range of previous research touting the health benefits of edible mushrooms, creating a smorgasbord of evidence for the humble mushroom’s brain-boosting powers.
Citing previous research that showed the “antioxidant, antivirus, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating” effect of mushroom consumption, the research team turned their focus to cognitive health and scoured the prior studies for brain benefits tied to about a dozen types of mushrooms – an area of research that was found lacking.
“In contrast to the body of literature on food ingredients that may benefit cardiometabolic diseases and cancer, very few studies have focused on food that may benefit neurodegenerative diseases,” said Journal of Medicinal Food editor in chief Dr. Sampath Parthasarathy.
But the study found that mushrooms can do just that. “A number of edible mushrooms have been shown to contain rare and exotic compounds that exhibit positive effects on brain cells both in vitro and in vivo,” write the study authors.
While cautioning that “the brain and cognition health effects of mushrooms are in their early stages of research,” the study authors believe that some mushrooms may help the body unlock natural curing powers in the brain that can ward off dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“It has become apparent that damaged neurons do regenerate under the presence of stimulatory substances such as nerve growth factor (NGF),” they write.
Activating NGF can help overcome the neural deterioration that’s a hallmark of dementia and Alzheimer’s. “Selected edible and medicinal mushrooms may effectively enhance neurite outgrowth in the brain by stimulating NGF production, mimicking the NGF reactivity, or by protecting neurons from neurotoxicants-induced cell death,” the researchers add.
The Magical Variety of Mushrooms
A wide variety of mushrooms have the potential to act as “mitigators of neurodegeneration,” as the authors term it. Many of these mind-improving mushrooms are described with colorful nicknames, including the monkey’s head mushroom (H. erinaceus), the veiled lady (D. indusiata), the dancing mushroom (G. frondosa) and the snow mushroom (T. fuciformis).
For instance, the researchers found that consumption of H. erinaceus tablets improved the cognitive functioning of Japanese study participants between the ages of 50 to 80. Another study showed that extracts from the tiger’s milk mushroom (L. rhinocerotis) were able to “mimic” NGF activity in the brain.
Notably, L. rhinocerotis has long been considered a natural remedy. “The indigenous people in Malaysia claimed that L. rhinocerotis can be used as a medicine to relieve cough, asthma, fever, cancer and even food poisoning,” note the researchers.
“The current study might stimulate the identification of more food materials that are neuroprotective,” added Parthasarathy, who is interim associate dean at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine.
The authors believe the evidence shows that “it is very likely that a dietary intake of mushroom or mushroom-based extracts might have beneficial effects on human health and improve brain function.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.