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Cinnamon may be a fragrant medicine for the brain
Dr. Kalipada Pahan at Rush University and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago has found, in mice, that cinnamon turns poor learners into good ones. He hopes the research will be true for people as well.
Pahan's research shows that the effect appears to be due mainly to sodium benzoate — a chemical produced as cinnamon is broken down in the body. If that chemical sounds familiar, you may have noticed it on the ingredient labels of many processed foods. Food makers use a synthetic form of sodium benzoate as a preservative. It is also an FDA-approved drug used to treat hyperammonemia — or too much ammonia in the blood.
Though some health concerns exist regarding sodium benzoate, most experts agree it's perfectly safe in the amounts generally consumed. One reassuring point is that it's water-soluble and easily excreted in urine.
Cinnamon acts as a slow-release form of sodium benzoate, explains Pahan. His lab studies show that different compounds within cinnamon — including cinnamaldehyde which gives the spice a distinctive flavor and aroma — are "metabolized into sodium benzoate in the liver. Sodium benzoate then becomes the active compound, which easily enters the brain, stimulating hippocampal plasticity."
Those changes in the hippocampus — the brain's main memory center — appear to be where cinnamon and sodium benzoate exert their benefits.
In their study, Pahan's group first tested mice in mazes to separate the good and poor learners. Good learners made fewer wrong turns and took less time to find food hidden in the maze.
In analyzing baseline disparities between good and poor learners, Pahan's team found differences in two brain proteins. But, that gap was all but erased when cinnamon was given to poor learners.
The researchers also examined brain cells taken from the mice. They found that sodium benzoate enhanced the structural integrity of dendrite cells — the tree-like extensions of neurons enabling communication between brain cells.
Cinnamon, like many spices, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. So it could be expected to exert a range of health-boosting responses, and it does have a centuries-long history of medicinal use around the world.
But the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health adds "high-quality clinical evidence to support the use of cinnamon for any medical condition is generally lacking." Most clinical trials that have taken place have focused on the spice's possible effect on blood sugar for people with diabetes. Little if any clinical research has been done on the spice's possible brain-boosting properties.
Pahan hopes to change that. Based on these promising results from his group's preclinical studies, he believes that "besides general memory improvement, cinnamon may target Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment [a precursor to Alzheimer's], and Parkinson's disease as well." He is now talking with neurologists about planning a clinical trial on Alzheimer's.
As for himself, Pahan isn't waiting for clinical trials. He eats about a teaspoon — about 3.5 grams — of cinnamon powder mixed with honey every night.
Should the research on cinnamon continue to move forward, he envisions a similar remedy being adopted by struggling students worldwide.
Pahan's study was funded by VA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Alzheimer's Association.Return to top of page
In mouse experiments, Dr. Kalipada Pahan's lab has been studying
the effects of cinnamon on learning and brain plasticity..
Image Credit: Jerry Daliege