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Understanding lion's mane potential to improve cognitive function [Interview]

Article-Understanding lion's mane potential to improve cognitive function [Interview]

© Vitafoods Insights Vitafoods Europe 2024 Speaker Interview with Dr Ellen Smith, NUTRAN
There is growing evidence that lion's mane mushroom extracts could positively impact cognitive function and wellbeing. Some of the latest findings from the Nutrition Trials at Northumbria (NUTRAN) University research group will be discussed at Vitafoods Europe 2024.

Nutrition Trials at Northumbria (NUTRAN) is a research group that brings together world leading expertise and state of the art facilities across six labs within Northumbria University. The group aims to take a more holistic and expansive approach to studying the impact of diet on human health and performance.

These six key labs are: brain, biological, omics, sleep, sports and vascular. By taking a more integrated approach, a wide range expertise can be drawn upon in order to design and conduct ambitious research trials.

Dr Ellen Smith, a research fellow within the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre (BPNRC), will be sharing the results of recent research at Vitafoods Europe 2024. In particular, she will be focusing on the potential for lion's mane mushroom to impact cognitive function and wellbeing.

Within my role, I design, manage and run randomised controlled trials assessing the effects of human diet,” she explains. “This primarily covers cognitive function, mood, and wellbeing – but also related health outcomes. My key interests are in mushrooms, polyphenols and botanical extracts, specifically with the aim to understand how these may impact human cognitive performance and mood.

Beneficial properties of lion’s mane

Smith points out that numerous bioactive compounds have been identified within the mycelia and fruiting bodies of lion’s mane. These include polysaccharides, phenolic acids and terpenoids (specifically hericenones and erinacines). The presence of these bioactive compounds likely underpin the potential cognitive enhancing effects.

Both hericenones and erinacines have the ability to cross the blood brain barrier and promote nerve growth factor synthesis and secretion,” she explains. “Work in animal models has also suggested an increase in circulating pro-brain-derived neurotrophic factor following hericene A administration.

In addition, animal models have evidenced anti-inflammatory effects of lion’s mane. And more recently, evidence has suggested that lion’s mane (and the polysaccharides within lion’s mane) may have the ability to modulate the composition of the gut microbiota. These also offer potential mechanisms of action, particularly via the gut-brain-axis.

This is still a relatively new area of research, particularly in terms of human research,” says Smith. “To further understand potential mechanisms of action, we need to conduct ambitiously designed research trials which look to concurrently measure cognitive performance alongside other health markers such as blood biomarkers and gastrointestinal microbiota.

Cutting edge research discussed

At Vitafoods Europe, Smith will discuss some of their latest research and findings. One recent pilot trial sought to investigate the effects of lion’s mane supplementation on cognitive performance and mood in healthy, younger adults over four weeks. This trial was also the first to assess if any effects could be observed after just a single dose of lion’s mane (60-minutes post dose).

This trial involved 43 participants, aged between 18 and 40 years,” says Smith. “They consumed lion’s mane or a placebo for 28-days. Our aims were to see if there were any changes in cognitive performance on a set of computerised tasks, and on mood, particularly subjective stress.

The results showed that after a single dose of lion’s mane, participants performed quicker on an executive function task. Potential stress-reducing effects were also identified following 28-days of supplementation.

It is crucial to acknowledge though that this was a pilot trial, with a small sample size,” says Smith. “Larger trials incorporating more cognitively demanding paradigms are therefore necessary to further investigate the potential effects of lion’s mane.

Moving forward, Smith and her team are interested to look further at the effects on mood and well-being. This will the focus of the next trial. “Given the high prevalence of mental illness in the population, we’re keen to assess if lion’s mane can improve mood and well-being and if it could potentially be used as an early intervention prior to psychological or medicinal treatment,” she says.

Understanding the mushroom revolution

Smith will also be participating in a panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe on the so-called mushroom revolution, discussing more broadly the potential that mushrooms hold for the cognitive health innovation space.

An important consideration in this field is the environmental impact of the supplement industry,” she says. “We’re seeing a shift towards investigating sustainable ingredients. Mushrooms are a great option here, and they also contain various bioactive compounds with potential cognitive-enhancing properties.

Whilst it’s still early days, Smith believes that think lion’s mane in particular holds promise in improving cognitive performance and well-being. “However, considerable future work in larger cohorts is necessary,” she emphasises.