A mushroom-rich diet may delay the development of age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease, according to research by the University of Malaya.

Malaysian scientists have found that mushrooms contain bioactive compounds that may promote nerve growth in the brain, therefore reducing or delaying the development of neurodegeneration.

Latest reports state that the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's is expected to rise steadily and reach 42 million cases worldwide by 2020. In Malaysia, there were 50,000 cases of Alzheimer's in 2006 and is expected to project until 590,000 by 2050. It is currently the 8th leading cause of death in the country. The findings create a possible area of study to prevent the risk of such chronic diseases.

An alternative approach to current treatments

Professor Vikineswary Sabaratnam of the University of Malaya, one of the authors of the paper said that current treatments for neuro-degenerative diseases have many side effects and only provide a short-term delay in progression. He suggested an alternative approach to mitigating such diseases is by using complementary health approaches such as food.

"Mushrooms might have the potential to be functional foods with neuro-protective and cognitive benefits," he said.

Previous evidence have shown that mushrooms exhibit antioxidant, anti-tumour, anti-virus, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, anti-microbial, and anti-diabetic activities. Now, the study looked at the scientific evidence available on 11 types of fungi, particularly on their anti-dementia active compounds and/or pharmacological test results that were done on rodents and humans.

They found that "a number of edible mushrooms" boosted the brain's gray matter by elevating the production of the nerve growth factor (NGF) and consequently protected neurons from chemical substances that cause cell death.

Food as medicine: A new area of study

One mushroom, H. erinaceus, or more commonly known as Lion's Mane was found to improve mild cognitive impairment which usually leads to dementia among 50- to 80- year olds. Cordyceps was found to be highly anti-inflammatory, therefore preventing neuronal cell death and memory loss, and Reishi mushrooms were also found to improve cognitive functions.

The researchers however said that studies of the effects of mushrooms on the brain are still in early stages and extensive animal and human clinical trials are needed before food or novel therapeutic drugs to prevent or mitigate the effects of neuro-degenerative diseases can be developed.

"In contrast to the body of literature on food ingredients that may benefit cardiometabolic diseases and cancer, very few studies have focused on food that may benefit neurodegenerative diseases," Dr Sampath Parthasarathy, editor-in-chief of Journal of Medicinal Food said.

"The current study might stimulate the identification of more food materials that are neuroprotective." MIMS

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