ASX enhanced AHN in adult mice. Credit: University of Tsukuba

ASX enhanced AHN in adult mice. Credit: University of Tsukuba

With the recent rise in popularity of naturally-derived supplements for good health, there has been increased attention on developing so-called “brain foods,” or foods which can enhance brain function. Of particular interest has been the natural red pigment astaxanthin (ASX) abundant in both salmon and in crustaceans such as shrimp and crab, and in its original form as a product of the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis.

ASX has shown to have a powerful antioxidant effect, and it holds promise as an important natural supplement. ASX is capable of penetrating the blood-brain barrier, entering the brain, where it acts directly on nerve cells. ASX is also known to have a neuroprotective effect in neurological animal disease model. However, there are many unanswered questions as to the effects of ASX on hippocampal function, especially whether or not it can increase the neuroplasticity of the hippocampus.

Recently a research group led by Professors Hideaki Soya and Randeep Rakwal at the University of Tsukuba Department of Health and Sport Sciences investigated the effect on hippocampal function of naturally-derived ASX, which is believed to have the most powerful antioxidant activity among carotenoids. Their results, published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research showed for the first time that giving ASX to mice for four weeks promoted neurogenesis in the hippocampus in a concentration-dependent manner, and elevated the learning and memory capacity of the hippocampus.

Additionally when the team investigated the molecular mechanism of the ASX activity on the hippocampus using high-throughput DNA microarray technology and bioinformatics analyses such as IPA, it brought to the fore specific molecular pathways that could contribute to improved memory capacity.

Their research was funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

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