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Beyond Psilocybin: Brain-Boosting Compounds

April 12, 2022

While the trippier fungi have stolen the show, several of their relatives are being investigated to treat common mental health conditions and neurodegenerative disorders.

Psilocybin, a psychoactive compound found in some psychedelic species of fungi, has received a flood of attention in recent years for its potential in treating mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD. But it isn’t just trippy fungi that could deliver major brain benefits: Scientists are also looking into a host of other species that could help combat conditions affecting the mind, such as neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and common mental illnesses.

Fungi have long attracted scientific inquiry. For starters, they’re known to offer diverse, powerful collections of compounds called secondary metabolites that help them compete in the wild. These compounds have already provided us with a range of life-saving drugs, such as the antibiotic penicillin, the chemotherapy treatment Taxol, and the cholesterol medication Lovastatin.

Many types of fungi are sold in the U.S. as supplements in the form of ground powders. Lab experiments, meanwhile, typically extract biologically-active compounds using ethanol, certain enzymes or other agents that seem to boost their positive effects. And while recent epidemiological studies have identified a possible link between regularly eating mushrooms and a reduced risk of cognitive decline, researchers hope to incorporate the powerful fungi-derived compounds into more targeted treatments. Currently, the vast majority of studies have analyzed the effects of fungi extracts and certain isolated compounds on cells and rodents, along with relatively tiny samples of humans, so it’s far too early to make any conclusions.

Still, some results have nevertheless been encouraging. Here are some varieties that are currently being studied for their potential brain benefits:

Shiitake

While it’s one of the most popular edible mushrooms worldwide, you may not know that Lentinula edodes has also received attention in labs for its possible neurological applications. Shiitake are particularly prized for carbohydrates called polysaccharides, specifically beta-glucans, that are also found in the cell walls of various fungi. Beta-glucans offer a variety of possible advantages, including their ability to reduce inflammation, regulate the immune system and combat infections. 

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