Cinnamon, the aromatic household spice that is often added to food items to enhance flavour, may improve learning ability, a new study led by an Indian- origin scientist has found.
The study found that feeding cinnamon to laboratory mice determined to have poor learning ability made the them better learners.
"This would be one of the safest and the easiest approaches to convert poor learners to good learners," said lead researcher Kalipada Pahan, professor at Rush University.
Some people are born naturally good learners, some become good learners by effort, and some find it hard to learn new tasks even with effort, researchers said.
"Understanding brain mechanisms that lead to poor learning is important to developing effective strategies to improve memory and learning ability," Pahan said.
The key to gaining that understanding lies in the hippocampus, a small part in the brain that generates, organises and stores memory.
Researchers have found that the hippocampus of poor learners have less CREB – a protein involved in memory and learning – and more GABRA5 – which generates tonic inhibitory conductance in the brain.
The mice in the study received oral feedings of ground cinnamon, which their bodies metabolised into sodium benzoate, a chemical used as a drug treatment for brain damage.
When the sodium benzoate entered the mice’s brains, it increased CREB, decreased GABRA5, and stimulated the plasticity (ability to change) of hippocampal neurons.
These changes in turn led to improved memory and learning among the mice.
"We have successfully used cinnamon to reverse biochemical, cellular and anatomical changes that occur in the brains of mice with poor learning," Pahan said.
The researchers used a Barnes maze, a standard elevated circular maze consisting of 20 holes, to identify mice with good and bad learning abilities.
After two days of training, the mice were examined for their ability to find the target hole. They tested the mice again after one month of cinnamon feeding.
The researchers found that after eating their cinnamon, the poor learning mice had improved memory and learning at a level found in good learning mice.
However, they did not find any significant improvement among good learners by cinnamon.
"Individual difference in learning and educational performance is a global issue," Pahan said.
"We need to further test this approach in poor learners.
If these results are replicated in poor learning students, it would be a remarkable advance," he said.
Pahan and his colleagues had previously found that cinnamon can reverse changes in the brains of mice with Parkinson’s disease.
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology.