Lion’s mane mushrooms have attracted more attention from the scientific community than any other type of medicinal mushroom, and for good reason. These strange-looking mushrooms contain molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier. Once inside the brain itself, lion’s mane can stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), a group of molecules that encourage the development of new neurons and nurture and preserve mature ones.

Lion’s Mane Mushroom 101

It’s impossible to ignore the distinctive appearance of this mushroom. “Lion’s mane mushrooms are not your classic looking cap-and-stem variety,” Paul Stamets, famous mycologist, founder of Fungi Perfecti and advisor to the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson, wrote in a Huffington Post piece. “These globular-shaped mushrooms sport cascading teeth-like spines rather than the more common gills,” continued Stamets. “From these spines, white spores emerge.”

Other names for the mushroom also stem from its unmistakable appearance. Its Japanese name—yamabushitake—translates to, essentially, “bearded tooth mushroom.” Even its formal Latin name, Hericium erinaceus, follows this trend—both the words mean “hedgehog!” In the Huffington Post piece, Stamets shares his personal favorite name: “pom pom blanc,” given by someone who saw a similarity between the mushroom the pom-poms carried by cheerleaders. Other names include…

  • Sheep’s head
  • Bear’s head
  • Monkey’s head
  • Bearded hedgehog

How Lion’s Mane Protects Your Brain  

The impressive neuroprotective effects of lion’s mane have won renown for centuries. It has an especially long history of medicinal use in both China and Japan, where it was once reserved solely for the use of the royal families. Modern laboratory testing has identified many of the biological mechanisms that underlie its powerful abilities.

In 1991, Dr. Kawagishi, a Japanese scientist, identified for the first time two new classes of NGF, named hericenones and erinacines, in lion’s mane. Both these newly-discovered types of NGF stimulate the differentiation and re-myelination of neurons—meaning, in less technical terms, the development and protection of brain cells. They also work to keep the whole nervous system running at full capacity by carrying out various neuron-related tasks, such as…

  • Maintenance
  • Repair
  • Enhancement
  • Regeneration

Experts believe that an inadequate supply of NGF molecules in the brain can spur the progression of various neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s. Compounding that is the fact that physiological changes that accompany these diseases prevent the brain from manufacturing NGF.

Reviving Your Memories—and Curiosity!

Additional investigations of the specific classes of NGF found in lion’s mane—hericenones and erinacines—have delved deeply into the ways that these compounds stimulate nerve regeneration. According to one small clinical study carried out jointly by the Hokuto Corporation and the Isogo Central and Neurosurgical Hospital in 2009, the mushroom’s capacity for stimulating regeneration lead to significant improvements for 30 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

A separate study, conducted with mice, focused on how the compounds found in lion’s mane influence the beta amyloid plaque formations found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. These plaques are a key morphological biomarker of the disease—or, in layperson’s terms, a sign of its presence. By causing inflammation in the surrounding brain tissue, the plaques prevent communication between neurons and instigate nerve degeneration.

The researchers began by injecting the mice with neurotoxic peptides that induced plaque formation. They tracked the development of the plaques by placing the mice in a standard Y maze designed to test their memory skills. Over time, the mice lost the ability to navigate the maze. When the researchers added dried lion’s mane to the mice’s diet, however, their performance in the maze began to rapidly improve. The mice also recovered another cognitive ability, something the scientists described as curiosity, that they measured by the amount of time the mice spent interacting with unfamiliar objects as opposed to old favorites.

When the researchers examined the mice’s brains at the end of the study, they described the difference in the reduction of the beta amyloid plaques in the brains of the mice who had received the mushroom as opposed to the control group as nothing short of remarkable.

“Nature’s Nutrients for Your Neurons”

Extensive research has confirmed that lion’s mane is a safe, effective method for literally regenerating your brain’s memory capacity and other cognitive skills, too. The unique hericenones and erinacines compounds it contains mightily influence your brain’s chemistry. Thanks to their ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, they may be the most potent NGF inducers out there. As Stamets summarized, lion’s mane is “nature’s nutrients for your neurons.”