Mushrooms on the Mind: Medicinal Mushrooms Extend Lifespan and Exert Neuroprotective Effects
Several critical aspects of brain health deteriorate with age, leading to a progressive decline in cognitive functions. This degradation can include memory loss, brain shrinkage, low blood flow, and neuron cell death. A specific neuronal protein that can be altered with age or disease is α-synuclein, whose accumulation or misfolding in the brain is a hallmark of several neurodegenerative conditions.
Researchers out of the University of Milano-Bicocca in Milano, Italy, aimed to find compounds that could reduce the toxic buildup of α-synuclein, leading them to the medicinal mushrooms lion’s mane and maitake. These mushrooms are a bit different from the ones you’d find on the typical grocery store shelf, exhibiting neuroprotective and lifespan-extending effects in this study with yeast and worms. With this research published in Nutrients, Tripodi and colleagues uncover the “magic” of these mushrooms, which could lead to better cognitive and neurological function in adults with these so-called synucleinopathies.
The Favorable Functions of Fungi
Humans have used medicinal mushrooms since the Neolithic age—and now we know that several varieties support cognitive function and overall health, including lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) and maitake (Grifola frondose; also known as “hen-of-the-wood mushroom”).
With its name originating from its likeness to the long hair of a lion, the lion’s mane mushroom is thought to benefit the brain and nervous system. Lion’s mane contains bioactive compounds called erinacines that support nerve growth factors, cognition, and neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons. Lion’s mane has also exhibited antioxidant activity, as it scavenges for free radicals, reduces oxidative stress, and lowers the production of pro-inflammatory signaling compounds called cytokines.
Although we don’t have much research on lion’s mane consumption in humans, one clinical study looked at how the mushroom affected 50- to 80-year-old Japanese men and women with poor cognitive function. The researchers found that those supplementing with lion’s mane powder for 16 weeks had significantly improved cognitive function scores, which began to improve during the 8th week of the supplementation.
Similarly, maitake mushrooms have been used as a health-supporting food in China and Japan for centuries. Maitake has high levels of beneficial compounds called beta-glucans, which are prebiotic carbohydrates that provide antioxidant, anti-aging, and neuroprotective effects.
Both mushrooms also contain large quantities of L-ergothioneine, a compound that displays potent antioxidant activity and is linked to longevity—so much so that researchers have dubbed it a “longevity vitamin” despite its classification as an amino acid.
Previous research has found that maitake and lion’s mane mushrooms reduce neuroinflammation and extend lifespan in worms, leading Tripodi and colleagues to observe the effects of these two medicinal mushrooms on brain cell health and longevity in yeast and fruit flies.
Lion’s Mane and Maitake Benefit Longevity and Neuron Health
The Italian researchers first looked at the effects of aqueous maitake and lion’s mane extracts on the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is often used in scientific research to study cellular processes and aging.
They found that both mushroom extracts prolonged the lifespan of yeast cells, with higher concentrations extending longevity more. While the average lifespan of control yeast was 2.6 days, the average lifespan of yeast treated with 0.5% maitake extract or 0.5% lion’s mane extract was 18.4 days and 16.1 days, respectively—an impressive increase about five times greater than the controls’ lifespan.
The two mushrooms also reduced α-synuclein toxicity in the yeast, with just 24 hours of treatment causing a significant reduction in α-synuclein aggregation. As α-synuclein toxicity causes high levels of oxidative stress—a buildup of reactive molecules—and mitochondrial dysfunction, the toxicity can further reduce cellular function and harm neurons. In addition to lowering overall α-synuclein aggregation, lion’s mane and maitake extracts significantly reduced oxidative stress levels and improved mitochondrial function.
Surprisingly, the researchers tested the effects of pure ergothioneine to see if this “longevity vitamin” affected lifespan—but it did not extend longevity, suggesting that the anti-aging effects are synergistic with other compounds in the mushrooms.
Tripodi and colleagues also looked at the effects of maitake alone on fruit flies with high activity of human α-synuclein. Flies supplemented with an extract of 0.05% maitake had significantly increased lifespans, with males and females seeing an increase of 17% and 15%, respectively. However, higher doses were not better in this case—a 0.2% maitake extract had a toxic and life-shortening effect, especially in the female flies.
Scientific Support for ‘Shrooms
Although people often associate mushrooms with pizza toppings or the other trip-inducing kind, medicinal (or functional) mushrooms land somewhere in the middle. Medicinal mushrooms, which include lion’s mane and maitake, have been found to exert beneficial effects on human health, such as cognition. Although this study was done only in yeast and fruit flies, the results suggest that they may extend lifespan and protect brain cell function—including reducing the α-synuclein buildup prevalent in millions of Americans with declining neurological function.
As Tripodi and colleagues state in their paper, “In conclusion, the data presented here may have a great deal of implications and form the basis of future studies to elucidate the effects of mushroom-mediated inhibition of the α-syn aggregation process at the molecular level.”
They continue, “Moreover, this study opens interesting avenues to set up further strategies and to have better insight regarding mechanisms involved in deciphering the role of mushroom extracts in the inhibition of amyloid formation and in the prevention/alleviation of synucleinopathies, as well as potentially in other protein misfolding-related diseases.”
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