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Lion’s mane mushrooms may boost nerve growth and enhance memory

Your brain likes mushrooms, even if you don't.

By Cassidy Ward
Lucy (2014)

Luc Besson is perhaps best known for high-flying space adventures with bizarre aliens and charismatic leads like The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but in 2014 he gave us something a little different. Instead of taking viewers into the endless expanses of outer space, Lucy (streaming now on Peacock!) asks audiences to venture into the mysterious confines of the human mind.

When Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a student studying in Taiwan, is tricked into smuggling the experimental drug CPH4, things get very serious very quickly. Through a violent and horrifying set of circumstances, Lucy is exposed to an incredible amount of the drug and acquires powerful new abilities in the process. By the time the credits roll, Lucy’s brain is working at maximum capacity, and she’s capable of reading people’s thoughts, moving things with her mind, and even traveling through time. Of course, you won’t find CPH4 or anything like it at your local pharmacy or on the black market, but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t hard at work figuring out how to improve our brains.

RELATED: Enhancing the brain and drinking blood: the science behind ‘Limitless’

Recently, scientists from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland took a closer look at the mushroom Hericium erinaceus, commonly called lion’s mane, thanks to its fluffy appearance. While practitioners of traditional medicine in Asian countries have recognized the benefits of lion’s mane for centuries, how it works isn’t well-understood. Researchers set out to fix that by isolating compounds from the mushroom and putting them to the test. Their results were published in the Journal of Neurochemistry.

Lion's Mane Mushroom

Based both on lion’s mane’s historical use and prior research, scientists were on the hunt for compounds which might boost nerve growth and connections between neurons. What they found was N-de phenylethyl isohericerin (NDIPIH) and its hydrophobic derivative hericene A, molecules which appear to have the intended impact, compounds which appear to improve the brain’s ability to form and retrieve memories.

In the lab, scientists cultured neurons from the hippocampus and exposed them to isolated NDIPHI and hericene A. In the petri dish, scientists observed a considerable uptick in the outgrowth of axons and branching of neurites. The upshot of that is that neurons stretch their tendrils farther faster, and those long tendrils are better at making connections. When scientists looked at the cells under the microscope, they found that the mushroom’s compounds increased the size of the growth cones which allow neurons to better sense their environment and link up with their neighbors.

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Then they took their compounds out of the dish and into a living organism. Researchers fed laboratory mice extracts from lion’s mane mushrooms and watched their behavior. Mice who were given the mushrooms showed increased expression of neural growth factors, enhanced memory, and improved cognitive performance.

It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that there are additional compounds in the lion’s mane mushroom waiting to be discovered. What we’ve found already presents an opportunity to develop new therapeutic treatments to combat degenerative cognitive diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia. Unlike many of the other things you’ll find on the supplement shelf, the evidence for lion’s mane appears to be mounting. And if it doesn’t work, adding a handful of mushrooms to your diet is unlikely to be harmful.

It also probably won’t turn you into a superhero. Eating lion’s mane won’t give you the ability to mentally travel through time, but you might have an easier time finding your car keys, and that’s not nothing.

Watch Scarlett Johansson absolutely wreck several dozen dudes while simultaneously acquiring infinite cosmic power in Lucy, streaming right now on Peacock!