Adding spice to dishes may enhance brain power, a new study suggests. Brazilian researchers found that naturally-occurring flavonoids called apigenin found in red pepper boosts nerve formation and connections between brain cells.

Researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) wanted to investigate the effects of 4′, 5, 7,-trihydroxyflavone (API or apigenin) on the neural differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells.

They specifically discovered that apigenin shows potency in treating mental health problems like schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Past studies have also found that apigenin shows promise in the prevention of cancer.

Studies in the past have already shown that flavonoids positively affect memory and learning. In fact, these studies highlight the potency of flavonoids to preserve and boost brain function. However, this is the first study to show the mechanism of API directly on human pluripotent stem cells.

To land to their findings, the researchers applied API to human stem cells in a petri dish. Within 25 days, they observed that when they applied API, the stem cells became neurons. Without application of API, no change in stem cells occurred.

Aside from that, they observed that the neurons formed had stronger connections between each other. This shows promise in the formation of strong bonds among neurons that may boost brain power as neural signals travel quickly.

"Strong connections between neurons are crucial for good brain function, memory consolidation and learning," Stevens Rehen, leader author of the paper and a neuroscientist at D'Or Institute for Research and Education and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a press release.

When it comes to its mechanism of action, apigenin works by binding to estrogen receptors. These hormones affect the development, function and plasticity of the nervous system. Thus, this group is linked with the delay in onset of mental health problems and neurodegenerative disorders.

"Finally, we also observed that API stimulates the formation of synapses in human neurons," the researchers concluded in the study.

"This observation suggests that API could be used as a tool for neural differentiation, to accelerate neuronal maturation and synaptogenesis, and to make more robust in vitro models. These results endorse that API is not only a potent neurogenic agent but also a strong synaptogenic driver," they added.

The study was published in the journal Advances in Regenerative Biology.

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