A new study has found that consuming wasabi daily could be a tasty way to improve memory, cognitive performance and mental processing skills in older people
A recently published study investigating the effects of daily consuming wasabi, a traditional Japanese condiment with a number of known anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, found it enhanced the memory of healthy adults above the age of 60 years.
A decline in cognitive function is viewed as a natural part of the aging process that unfortunately can often profoundly affect daily life. Additionally, some memory loss can also be attributed to stress, tiredness and illness. But more serious memory loss, along with other changes, could be a sign of dementia. For these reasons, considerable research efforts have focused on how to slow age-related cognitive declines.
Previous studies have identified specific lifestyle habits, exercise regimes and foods that might improve brain health. For example, specific diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, which consists of large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, have been found to significantly improve memory and cognition in older people.
More recent research has found that various herbs and spices, such as garlic and ginger, can also improve cognition and memory in older adults — even in those suffering from dementia. A popular Japanese condiment, wasabi, Wasabia japonica, also known as Japanese horseradish, which is the source of the hot, pungent green paste traditionally served with sushi, and is used to season nuts and other savory snacks. Wasabi has customarily been considered to be a healthy spice because it is known to help reduce inflammation in various parts of the body. It has also been reported to slow cognitive decline because of its supposed calming effect on the brain. For that reason, it is now sold as a supplement in many health food stores.
But are these claims about wasabi’s supposed benefits true? In this recent study, a team of cognitive health and aging researchers affiliated with a large number of institutions throughout Japan, designed an experiment to test wasabi’s cognitive benefits. They recruited 72 Japanese volunteers aged between 60 and 80 years (average age 65) to participate as study subjects. The researchers screened out people with known ailments, mental disorders, memory problems and those taking certain medications or who were heavy drinkers. The remaining volunteers were randomly and unknowingly divided into two groups: one group was given a wasabi tablet to take daily at bedtime, whilst the other group was given a placebo.
After the 3-month trial ended, the researchers used standardised cognitive assessments to test the participants’ mental processing speed, attention, short-term memory, working memory, episodic memory, executive functions, and visual-spatial abilities. Episodic memory refers to memory of everyday events and working memory is the ability to keep information active in your mind for short periods of time.
The test results found that the wasabi group showed “significantly” better performances in episodic and working memory compared to the placebo group. However, no significant improvements were observed in any of the other cognitive domains tested. Conversely, the placebo group showed no such improvements.
What makes wasabi so beneficial? It contains a chemical compound, 6 methylsulfinyl hexyl isothiocyanate (6-MSITC), that had previously been associated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The wasabi tablet that the study participants took contained 100 milligrams of wasabi extract powder, which contains 0.8mg of 6-MSITC.
The research team propose that this chemical compound targets the hippocampus, a critical region of the brain involved in memory. The 6-MSITC compound may act to ease neuroinflammation, guard against oxidative damage in brain cells, and bolster neuron connectivity. Its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and directly impact brain tissue and the hippocampus might also contribute to its potential cognitive-enhancing effects.
These promising findings underscore the growing evidence supporting the influence of nutrition on brain function and cognitive aging. The cognitive benefits of various foods, such as wild blueberries, nuts, legumes, and dark leafy greens, have already been established. The discovery of wasabi’s potential in this respect highlights the possibility of developing targeted nutritional strategies to optimize brain health, particularly for older adults at risk of cognitive decline. However, before you run out to a Japanese restaurant for a quick hit of wasabi, you should know that it is quite expensive (approximately $50/ounce), so most restaurant wasabi is horseradish that’s been dyed green.
Rui Nouchi, Natasha Y. S. Kawata, Toshiki Saito, Haruka Nouchi and Ryuta Kawashima (2023). Benefits of Wasabi Supplements with 6-MSITC (6-Methylsulfinyl Hexyl Isothiocyanate) on Memory Functioning in Healthy Adults Aged 60 Years and Older: Evidence from a Double-Blinded Randomized Controlled Trial, Nutrients 15(21):4608 | doi:10.3390/nu15214608