Researchers have been studying the effects of cinnamon on learning and brain plasticity in mouse experiments. [Jerry Daliege]
Researchers have been studying the effects of cinnamon on learning and brain plasticity in mouse experiments. [Jerry Daliege]

New research from investigators at Rush University Medical Center and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago could provide Alzheimer’s patients, and those that suffer from learning disabilities, some tasty therapeutics in the future. The researchers found that increased ingestion of cinnamon dramatically improved the memory of poor-learning mice.

“The increase in learning in poor-learning mice after cinnamon treatment was significant,” explained senior study author Kalipada Pahan, Ph.D., professor of neurological sciences, biochemistry, and pharmacology at Rush University Medical Center. “For example, poor-learning mice took about 150 seconds to find the right hole in the Barnes maze test. On the other hand, after 1 month of cinnamon treatment, poor-learning mice were finding the right hole within 60 seconds.”

The findings from this study were published recently in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology in an article entitled “Cinnamon Converts Poor Learning Mice to Good Learners: Implications for Memory Improvement.”

Interestingly, the Chicago scientists found that the improved memory effects appear to be due mainly to sodium benzoate—a chemical produced as cinnamon is broken down in the body. Sodium benzoate is an FDA-approved drug used to treat hyperammonemia, and a synthetic form of the compound is used as a preservative in many processed foods. Though some health concerns exist regarding sodium benzoate, most experts agree it's perfectly safe in the amounts generally consumed.

“Cinnamon acts as a slow-release form of sodium benzoate,” Dr. Pahan noted. His laboratory studies show that various compounds within cinnamon—including cinnamaldehyde, which gives the spice its distinctive flavor and aroma—are “metabolized into sodium benzoate in the liver. Sodium benzoate then becomes the active compound, which readily enters the brain and stimulates hippocampal plasticity.” These changes in the hippocampus, the brain's main memory center, appear to be the mechanism by which cinnamon and sodium benzoate exert their benefits.

In the current study, Dr. Pahan and his colleagues 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. Surprisingly, when the researcher’s analyzed the disparities between the good and poor learners, they found differences in two brain proteins—gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) A receptor, alpha 5 (GABRA5) and cAMP response element binding protein (CREB). When the poor-learning mice were fed cinnamon, the gap was all but erased.

“Little is known about the changes that occur in the brains of poor learners,” Dr. Pahan remarked. “We saw increases in GABRA5 and a decrease in CREB in the hippocampus of poor learners. Interestingly, these particular changes were reversed by 1 month of cinnamon treatment.”

The researchers also examined brain cells taken from the mice. They found that sodium benzoate enhanced the structural integrity of the cells–namely in the dendrites, the tree-like extensions of neurons that enable them to communicate with other brain cells.

Cinnamon, like many spices, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. So it could be expected to exert a range of health-boosting actions, and it does have a centuries-long history of medicinal use around the world.

While the researchers were excited by their findings, they did urge caution before ingesting large amounts of cinnamon because most of what can be found in stores is the Chinese variety, which contains a compound called coumarin that may be toxic to the liver in high amounts. However, a person would likely have to eat tons of cinnamon to run into a problem; but just the same, Dr. Pahan recommends the Ceylon or Sri Lanka type, which is coumarin-free. 

Moreover, Dr. Pahan stated that “simply smelling the spice may not help because cinnamaldehyde should be metabolized into cinnamic acid and then sodium benzoate,” explains Pahan. “For metabolism [to occur], cinnamaldehyde should be within the cell.”

Dr. Pahan is looking toward the future with future studies to apply the knowledge he had gained from the current study and apply them to disease like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Furthermore, 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,” Dr. Pahan said. “In many cases, we find two students of the same background studying in the same class, and one turns out to be a poor learner and does worse than the other academically. Now 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.”

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