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Cinnamon may be a fragrant medicine for the brain

If new research is confirmed, the standard advice for failing students might one day be: Study harder and eat your cinnamon!

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.

The findings were published online June 24, 2016, in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology.

"The increase in learning by poor-learning mice, after cinnamon treatment, was significant. For example, poor-learning mice took about 150 seconds to find the right hole in the Barnes maze test. After one month of cinnamon treatment — poor-learning mice were finding the right hole within 60 seconds."

Kalipada Pahan PhD, Professor, Neurological Sciences, Biochemistry and Pharmacology, Department of Neurological Sciences, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA

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.

"Little is known about the changes that occur in the brains of poor learners. We saw increases in GABRA5 and a decrease in CREB in the hippocampus of poor [mouse] learners. Interestingly, these particular changes were reversed by one month of cinnamon treatment."

Kalipada Pahan PhD

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.

Before you start heaping cinnamon on your oatmeal, keep a few caveats in mind:

• Most cinnamon is a Chinese variety containing a coumarin compound that may be toxic to the liver in high amounts. Although, you would have to eat tons to run into a problem.

• Pahan recommends Ceylon or Sri Lanka type cinnamon, which is coumarin-free.

Even then "Anything in excess is toxic," says Pahan.

• What about simply inhaling the pleasant-smelling spice? Will that benefit the brain?

Pahan: "Simply smelling the spice may not help because cinnamaldehyde should be metabolized into cinnamic acid and then sodium benzoate." [which occurs within the cell].

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.

"Individual differences in learning and educational performance is a global issue.

"In many cases, we find two students of the same background studying in the same class. One turns out to be a poor learner and academically does worse than the other.

"We need to find a way to test this approach in poor learners. If these results are replicated in poor-learning students, it would be a remarkable advance. At present, we are not using any other spice or natural substance."

Kalipada Pahan PhD

This study underlines the importance of cinnamon, a commonly used natural spice and flavoring material, and its metabolite sodium benzoate (NaB) in converting poor learning mice to good learning ones. NaB, but not sodium formate, was found to upregulate plasticity-related molecules, stimulate NMDA- and AMPA-sensitive calcium influx and increase of spine density in cultured hippocampal neurons. NaB induced the activation of CREB in hippocampal neurons via protein kinase A (PKA), which was responsible for the upregulation of plasticity-related molecules. Finally, spatial memory consolidation-induced activation of CREB and expression of different plasticity-related molecules were less in the hippocampus of poor learning mice as compared to good learning ones. However, oral treatment of cinnamon and NaB increased spatial memory consolidation-induced activation of CREB and expression of plasticity-related molecules in the hippocampus of poor-learning mice and converted poor learners into good learners. These results describe a novel property of cinnamon in switching poor learners to good learners via stimulating hippocampal plasticity.

Pahan's study was funded by VA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Alzheimer's Association.Return to top of page

Jul 28, 2016   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News   News Archive   

In mouse experiments, Dr. Kalipada Pahan's lab has been studying
the effects of cinnamon on learning and brain plasticity..
Image Credit: Jerry Daliege



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