Fungi are having a moment. Research into their therapeutic and medicinal properties continues to expand rapidly like a mycelial web. Their influence on brain health is garnering increasing attention and interest with claims that both psychoactive and everyday mushrooms can help neural plasticity, regrow brain cells and alleviate mood and depression. Here’s how to create your own neurotrophic “stack” and take control of your health.
Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal-culinary mushroom considered a delicacy in East Asian cuisine, where it is also known as Yamabushutake or monkey’s head mushroom, and it has a long history of usage as a medicine. Bioactive compounds such as corallocins, erinacines and hericenones have been extracted from the mycelia and fruiting bodies of the fungus which have been found to promote the expression of neurotrophic factors associated with neuronal cell proliferation including NGF, GDNF and pro-BDNF.
Different parts of the fungi contain varying amounts of these compounds, with the mycelium of the fungus being a richer source of erinacines, and the fruiting bodies containing hericenones. To gain the maximum full spectrum benefit of this fungus, it may be wise to ingest both together.
While both sets of compounds have been implicated with neurotrophic effects, the evidence is stronger for the influence of the mycelial erinacines. If one grows their own lion’s mane, it is important to cook it if using it fresh, or powder it if using it dried, to liberate the bioactive compounds from behind the tough fungal cell walls.
Mushroom Compounds for Treating Depression
Low levels of neurotrophic compounds such as BDNF have been implicated in depression, and anti-depressant treatments that restore or increase BDNF levels have the capacity to alleviate symptoms of depression. Neurotrophic factors play an important role in synaptic and neuronal growth, development and survival. Diminishing levels of these factors have been associated with the cognitive decline associated with aging. By boosting naturally declining levels of these compounds as we age through lion’s mane supplementation, there is the potential to bolster cognitive capacity and stave off age related cognitive decline.
While research on lion’s mane in humans is still in its preliminary stages, a number of different studies have yielded promising findings. Research conducted so far suggests it may have the potential to treat cognitive impairment, nerve damage, age-related hearing loss, depression, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and aid in recovery from stroke.
One study examined the effect of an eight week course of lion’s mane supplementation and found it to hold promise in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety related mood disorders and improving sleep quality. Another study found that a four week course of lion’s mane reduced feelings of depression and anxiety and a small pilot study examined the effect of a four week course of lion’s mane extract and found that it was effective in improving sleep quality.
A double-blind clinical study found the supplementation with lion’s mane fruiting body was as associated with significant improvements in mild cognitive impairment in a 50-80 year olds. People supplemented with lion’s mane daily for 16 weeks, with no adverse effects noted. 4 weeks after finishing supplementation, the gains started to drop off. Lion’s mane isn’t the only fungus to harbour neurotrophic potential.
Psilocybin and Neuroplasticity
Research has shown psychedelics such as psilocybin can influence brain neuroplasticity by increasing the growth of neurites from neuronal cells, these forming the basis of nerve fibres or branched extensions between neurons that facilitate chemical communication between them.
These neurites may become shrivelled and atrophied in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during depression. “Neuroplasticity” is a key mechanism underlying neuronal adaptation and refers to the brain’s ability to form and reorganize neuronal connections, particularly in the wake of experience and learning. This dynamic capacity of the brain becomes disrupted during depression and other mental health conditions.
Research has also found that a single dose of psilocybin increases the number of synapses between neurons (persisting for at least a week), these playing a key role in communication between neurons. More recent research found that a single dose of psilocybin was associated with a 10% increase in neuronal connections, and they were also 10% larger. Importantly, these changes were still present a month later.
Psilocybin and Neurogenesis
“Neurogenesis” refers to the process of the growth and development of neurons from neural stem cells. This process is also thought to become disrupted in depression, and a reduction in volume of the hippocampus has been associated with depression and decreased neurogenesis has been proposed to be a key factor underlying cognitive decline associated with aging.
Psilocybin has also been associated with neurogenesis in the hippocampus (at least in mice), a part of the brain thought to play a key role in memory. Neurotropic effects have also been associated with DMT, 5-MeO-DMT and the beta-carboline alkaloids in ayahuasca. The promotion of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity by psychedelics has been proposed to have potential in treating brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease and aid in recovery from stroke.
Compounds that promote these processes have also been considered to harbour antidepressant potential. It should be noted however that the occurrence and relevance of neurogenesis in the adult human brain is currently fiercely scientifically debated, and research is still in its early stages.
The Neurotrophic ‘Stamets Stack’
Mycologist Paul Stamets has proposed a formulation with these two fungi to harness their combined neurotrophic potential. Recommended dosages can vary, but a guideline would be 5-20g or 1 tablespoon of dried lion’s mane (or an equivalent dose of a supplemental extract), a microdose of psilocybin mushroom and 100-200mg of niacin (the flushing type).
It is wise to start low and work up until one feels comfortable. One day on, 2/3 days off has been recommended as a dosing protocol. While Stamets advocates the use of niacin (otherwise known as vitamin B3) as a flushing agent to promote distribution of the mushroom molecules deep into the brain, it too has been implicated in neurogenesis, and the growth of new blood vessels (suggesting it could play a role in facilitating recovery from stroke).
The flushing effect can feel a little uncomfortable to those new to it, but it is harmless, and resistance to it tends to develop fairly rapidly. Some people recommend that lion’s mane is best consumed in the morning at the start of the day.
Cocao would make a worthwhile addition to a neurotrophic fungal brain stack, or an alternative ingredient to niacin for those that are put off by the feeling of it. Similar to niacin, the flavonoid compounds cocao contains have been associated with neurogenesis and widespread stimulation of brain perfusion (the process by which blood is forced to flow through a network of microscopic blood vessels). Cocoa has also been linked to neuroplasticity and found to be supportive of brain health and enhanced cognition.
Given the obvious difficulties of accessing a living human brain, much of this research has been conducted using animals. While on a biochemical, cellular level, there is a great deal of overlap between humans and other mammals, we must be cautious when making inferences from this research when applying it to humans.
Still, while research into the neurotrophic properties of fungi is in its early stages, they certainly appear to hold great potential as agents of mycotherapy – transcending treatments, having the potential to promote wellbeing and healthy aging.
Sam Gandy has a PhD in ecological science from the University of Aberdeen and an MRes in entomology from Imperial College London. His research is focused on the capacity of psychedelics to (re)connect our increasingly disconnected species to nature, for the potential betterment of humanity and the biosphere at large.