Nutrition and Drugs

Chia Seed’s Ability to Affect Cognition and Behavior

By June 18, 2018 No Comments

Chia seed (Salvia hispanica) has been all over social media lately, appearing as nutritional ingredients used to make smoothies or top-off salads. Chia seed deserve that spotlight glory because they truly are a superfood!

In this article, we will go over chia seed’s nutritional profile and what scientists know about this potent superfood’s ability to affect cognition and behavior.  

What is Chia Seed?

Well, chia seed (aka Salvia hispanica) belongs to the Salvia genus, the Lamiaceae family’s largest genus. (The Lamiaceae family is also known as the ‘mint’ family.)In general, the Salvia genus, which contains over 900 species, has been confirmed by scientists (with the use of animal and in vitro studies) for having plenty of active compounds with the ability of:

  • Enhancing cognitive activity
  • Protecting against neurodegenerative diseases[1]

Some common compounds identified within Salvia plants (and chia seeds) that are quite worthy of further scientific attention are phenolic acids, flavonoids, terpenoids, and polysaccharides. Due to the chemical compounds which are naturally found in chia seeds, they make a good source of disease-fighting antioxidants.[2]

Furthermore, chia seed is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, protein, fiber, zinc, and phosphorus. In fact, just two tablespoons of chia seeds contain 7 grams of unsaturated fat, making them “the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids”.[3]

active chemical components of chia seed.png

Although chia seed is obviously nutritious and powerful, the same can be said for other plants within its genus. Some other popular species within the Salvia genus are: Salvia officinalis (common sage), Salvia miltiorrhiza (Chinese sage), Salvia fruticose (Greek sage), and Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) and these are also gaining scientific interest.

This article, in addition to taking a closer look at chia seed’s effect on cognition and behavior, will expand upon some of the other Salvia plants’ ability to impact behavior.

What Makes Chia Seed So Special?

Chia seed(and Salvia plants) has quite a pharmacodynamic effect on the brain. The major components in these plants (phenolic acids, flavonoids, and terpenoids) are implicated in having

  • Cholinergic activity effects
  • Neurotrophic effects
  • Amyloid-β peptide effects
  • Antioxidant effects
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Antidepressant and anxiolytic effects[1]

Such effects capture the attention of researchers interested in exploring just how these plants’ abilities can impact behavior, well-being, and health.

Gender Differences in Chia Seed Induced Cognitive Effects

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are known for being the healthiest type of fat (and quite essential for the organism to function properly). Chia seed contains alpha-linolenic acid which is a type of PUFA.

Generally, diets containing ample amounts of alpha-linolenic acid have been shown to improve rats’ performance in the T-Maze.[4] Furthermore, diets with high amounts of Docosahexaenoic A (DHA), another type of PUFA, have been shown to improve animals’ behavior in the Radial-Arm Maze task.[5] So, more research needs to be done to address the interplay thereby conducting experiments to test the effect of various PUFA-based diets on behavior and cognition.

To investigate specifically the effects of chia seeds and other forms of PUFAs on behavior and cognition, researchers from the University of Vienna used a Y-Maze to test guinea pigs’ memory and spatial learning abilities by giving them various diets, each with different types and qualities of PUFAs.

The guinea pigs’ were on a standard diet, supplemented by chia seeds, walnuts, or peanuts which were finely crushed, mixed with water, and orally administered with the use of syringes.[6]

To conduct behavioral tests, the scientists used a modified Y-Maze, validated and built specifically for guinea pigs. The male and female guinea pigs were given only 3 days to learn the maze, they were tested again after about 2 weeks, to check their retention abilities.

The study demonstrated that the learning benefits occurred mainly in the female guinea pigs. During the first 3 days of testing, the females being supplemented with chia seeds or peanuts demonstrated fewer errors and a shorter latency time to complete the test than the control group and the walnut-supplemented group.

However, in a different context, the positive effects were also demonstrated in males, more specifically, during the retention test. While the control males did worse in the retention phase than they did during the learning phase of the experiment, all PUFA supplemented males did not show such a negative trend. Therefore, the supplements (and chia seeds) were able to help with long-term memory retention.[6]

Salvia Ameliorates aβ25-35-induced Spatial Memory Impairment

Compound Danshen Tablet (CDT), a tablet containing Salvia miltiorrhiza, has been shown to reduce the spatial memory impairment in mice provoked by lateral ventricle injection of aβ25-35(an upheld method for modeling Alzheimer’s disease in mice) by affecting the aβ1-42 deposition levels in the hippocampus and cortex.

CDT contains Salvia miltiorrhiza, Panax notoginseng (ginseng) and Borneol (also plant-based), in proportions of 450:141:8. Among the tablet’s main ingredients are Salvianolic acid B, sodium danshensu, rosmarinic acid, tanshinone, and cryptotanshinone.[7]

The researchers randomly had the mice divided into 5 groups which included a control group which received sham operation and a group that received only the aβ25-35 injection and no treatment. Then, the remaining 3 groups also received only the aβ25-35 injection, but were treated along with one of the following:

  • a small dose of CDT, 0.405g/kg
  • a large dose of CDT, 0.81g/kg
  • a positive drug of Huperzine A, 0.4mg/kg

The mice were behaviorally assessed using the Morris Water Maze test. As expected, the aβ25-35-treated mice performed very poorly, exhibiting signs of memory loss as demonstrated by increased escape latencies on the first day of testing.

On the second day of testing, to measure how well memory was maintained, a probe trial (in which the Morris Water Maze escape platform is removed) was administered to all groups. The aβ25-35-treated mice spent significantly less time in the target quadrant than the control group did. Furthermore, the CDT and Huperzine A groups spent a significantly greater amount of time in the target quadrant and had a greater number of platform crossings than the aβ25-35-treated mice did, indicating stronger memory retention[7].

Notably, CDT was able to change the aβ1-42 deposition in both the cortex and the hippocampus. Between the drug Huperzine A group and the CDT group, there was no significant difference in aβ1-42 deposition in these two brain areas, meaning that CDT was able to perform at the level of medication in this regard.

In addition to improving spatial memory, CDT administration protected the mice from aβ25-35-related neurotoxicity. Other interesting findings collected from this study (acquired as a result of brain tissue analysis) included:

  • the increase of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus
  • the increase of expressed choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) in the hippocampus and cortex (CDT performed at the level of the positive drug, Huperzine)
  • the inhibition of IL-6 and TNF-α levels

The significant effects on performance and the alterations in brain chemistry demonstrate the powerful ability of CDT and its constituents, such as Salvia miltiorrhiza, in decreasing memory deficits. Such potent, plant-based medications should continue to be researched, developed, and tested within human populations.

Salvia elegans’ Hydroalcoholic Extract Enhances Mood and Behavior

Remember that chia seed belong to a family of potent plants, all sharing similar active chemical compounds, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids. In the same family as the chia seed is the Salvia elegans which has recently been established by researchers to be able to induce both antidepressant and anxiolytic behaviors in mice.

Salvia elegans was of interest to a group of researchers based in Mexico, seeking to scientifically understand the cognitive and behavioral effects of this plant. These researchers noted that other Salvia plants were able to alter brain physiology and behavior, therefore Salvia elegans should, too. Yet, up to this point, minimal pharmacological research was done on Salvia elegans. So, they had a go at it.

The scientists used an array of behavioral tests to get a clearer and better understanding of the effects that this plant extract could have on animal behavior. Using hydroalcoholic acid to dilute the Salvia elegans leaves and flowers, an extract was derived for experimental purposes. The control groups were given either diazepam (an anxiolytic drug) at 1.0mg/kg, picrotoxin (an anxiety-producing drug) at 2.0mg/kg, or imipramine hydrochloride (an antidepressant drug) at 15mg/kg and the experimental groups were given varying dosages of the Salvia elegans extract.[8]

An Elevated-Plus Maze was used, due to the intensive validation that has been done showing its effectiveness in measuring rodent anxiety levels. The researchers found that the Salvia elegans extract increased the amount of time that the mice spent in the open arms of the Elevated-Plus Maze, meaning that the rodents were less anxious about being in open spaces (which are naturally avoided). Also, the percentage of entries to the open arms was higher in this group than the control, comparable to the behavioral profile exhibited by the rats in the diazepam group.

In the Light-Dark Apparatus, the experimental mice treated with Salvia elegans extract displayed improved performance. These mice were able to spend a significantly increased amount of time in the light area of the apparatus, just as the diazepam treated mice were able to do. Rodents prefer to spend time in dark, enclosed areas and find the opposite of that (light and/or open areas) to be anxiety provoking. The fact that the Salvia elegans-treated rodents were able to spend more time in the light area means that they were experiencing lower levels of anxiety.

Also, in the Forced-Swim Test, the Salvia elegans mice demonstrated decreased immobility time just as the imipramine group did. In animal research, immobility is considered to be a depressive-like state, so decreasing such a trend is seen as being a good thing. The decreased immobility from Salvia elegans supplementation was as statistically significant as the decreased immobility induced by the imipramine hydrochloride (the antidepressant) administration in one of the control group.

The behavioral results acquired, as a direct consequence of the administration of Salvia elegans, indicate that the effects of this plant’s hydroalcoholic extract have antidepressive and anxiolytic effects on behavior which are comparable to those from treatment medications.

The researchers supposed that these powerful effects were due to the essential oil linalool, which is an active component in the Salvia elegans extract and has been shown to have sedative effects in humans.[9] However, chia seed contain very small amounts of linalool [10] and are more concentrated in other chemical compounds, such as β-caryophyllene which is an active constituent in a variety of essential oil.[11] Β-caryophyllene has been shown by researchers to be implicated in anxiety and mood disorders, but more on that in the next section.

Chia Seeds Contain β-caryophyllene

β-caryophyllene is one of the chemical compounds that can be found in chia seeds. Other herbs and spices also contain β-caryophyllene, including oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, clove, black pepper and thyme. Chia seeds, based on where they were cultivated, can contain varying quantities of β-caryophyllene. For example, a study showed that a chia seeds sample from Texas contained 36% β-caryophyllene, 1.6 times higher than the California chia seeds sample and 2.7 times higher than the chia seeds sample from Argentina.[10]

To assess the effects β-caryophyllene would have on behavior, a group of researchers used mice and mazes to study anxiety and depression.[11] Mice were divided into 3 experimental conditions: one group was injected with olive oil, the other with β-caryophyllene, and the last group with a combination of β-caryophyllene and AM630, an antagonist which acts on the same receptors as β-caryophyllene.

The researchers found that β-caryophyllene was able to increase the amount of time mice spent in the open portion of the Open Field Test, also the mice that received both β-caryophyllene and the antagonist AM630 still outperformed the control group, indicating that β-caryophyllene has other unknown mechanisms for altering behavior. The same behavioral results occurred in the number of entries in the open arms and in the percentage of time spent in open arms. The β-caryophyllene outperformed the control group by a long shot and even the group receiving the antagonist mix scored higher than the control group.[11]

Also, in the same experiment, β-caryophyllene supplementation was associated with reduced immobility in the Tail Suspension Test, indicating an antidepressant effect. However, although β-caryophyllene can be found in chia seeds, limited research exists to date linking the two together as able to change behavior. Therefore, further research needs to demonstrate the interaction between behavior and chia seeds’ chemical compounds.

Due to its natural occurrence, β-caryophyllene has been gaining interest among scientists and β-caryophyllene extracts have been demonstrated to alter behavioral patterns observed in depression and anxiety. More research still needs to be conducted to establish the interaction between chia seeds, behavior, and β-caryophyllene.

Salvionolic Acid B Has Antidepressant-Like Effect on Mice

Another plant, related to chia seeds, that has an impact on cognition is the Salvia miltiorrhiza. From this plant, a group of scientists extracted 95% purity Salvionolic acid B (SalB) and found that its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties can exert a noticeable and measurable impact on behavior.

The experimental design had 5 conditions. The first 3 groups were exposed to SalB at different dosage levels (5, 10, or 20 mg/kg). Then, there was one control group taking saline only and one group on 20mg/kg of imipramine.[12]

The tests used to explore the impact of SalB administration on behavior were Forced-Swim Test and the Tail Suspension Test. The group averages in all SalB conditions, regardless of dosage level, showed significantly decreased immobility in both tests. Decreased immobility means that the SalB supplementation was as effective as imipramine (which also decreased immobility) in having an antidepressant effect on performance.

Although chia seeds do not contain Salvionolic acid B, they do contain Salvionolic acid C and Salvionolic acid E.[13] Currently, no research exists that tests the effect of either of these two acids on behavior.

Scientific Research on Chia Seeds Needs to Be Continued

Research involving chia seeds needs to be expanded. No doubt about it. Other plants within the chia seeds’ family have already proven to be potent, but research remains in its infancy and there is still plenty of opportunity for researching and exploring the effects that chia seeds can have over behavior, beyond those already covered in this article.

Chia seeds have already been proven to be a powerful dietary supplement. In a study of chronic high-carbohydrate or high-fat feeding diets, chia seeds were able to reverse the damages caused by such feeding habits. Chia seeds’ anti-inflammatory n-3 fatty acids were able to decrease markers of inflammation and increase whole body lean muscle mass.[14] Due to its inflammatory properties, it would be wise for future research to clearly assess the relationship between chia seed consumption and behavior.

Furthermore, given the neuroprotective properties of Salvia plants, there is an initiative to explore the effect of these plants (including chia seeds) on animals’ physiological make-up and behavior. There is plenty of research that connects the effects of Salvia plants to serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, more research needs to be done in order to better understand the effects that Salvia plants and chia seeds have on behavior, well-being, and health, because such plant-based solutions have the potential for bringing about the next scientific breakthrough.


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About Ana Zdravic

Ana Zdravic earned her BSc in Psychology from the University of Houston while minoring in creative writing. She is currently in Europe pursuing her master's degree in cognitive science and is thinking about going for a doctorate. Her research interests include stress, nutrition, exercise, creativity, and quality of life.