The Health Benefits of Jellyfish Protein (Apoaequorin)

Is the supplement a memory booster or a sham?

blue jellyfish

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Since the 1960s, jellyfish protein has been touted as a promising treatment for people with dementia, improving memory while slowing the progressive loss of cognitive function. The protein, known as apoaequorin, was first isolated from the crystal jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) in 1962. In nature, apoaequorin will produce an effervescent blue light when exposed to calcium.

It has long been thought that calcium deposits in the brain can contribute to the development of dementia in the elderly and people with Alzheimer's disease. Alternative practitioners have long asserted that apoaequorin when taken by mouth, can bind to calcium in the brain and improve the electrical signals between nerve cells.

In recent years, apoaequorin has been used to produce the dietary supplement Prevagen, which manufacturers claim can improve memory, mental function, and sleep quality.

Health Benefits

Problems with calcium regulation are believed to play a key role in aging-related mental decline. Because apoaequorin has a similar structure to calcium-binding proteins (such as calretinin and parvalbumin), some scientists contend that it can improve calcium regulation and prevent—or even reverse—the calcification of brain tissue.

By doing so, apoaequorin can theoretically treat or prevent:

Despite these and other health claims, there remains little evidence that jellyfish protein or apoaequorin supplements can treat any of these conditions.

Of the currently available research, the conclusions are often limited by the small size and/or poor design of the study. Others are based on largely on pseudoscience.

Memory and Verbal Learning

One such example is a 2016 study in the journal Advances in Mind-Body Medicine which evaluated the effects of apoaequorin in 218 adults, ages 40 to 91, with self-reported memory problems. Half were given a daily 10-milligram (mg) dose of an apoaequorin supplement, while the other half were given a placebo.

During the 90-day trial, deemed the Madison Memory Study, the researchers reported improvements in recall and verbal learning with each convening computer-based test. In their conclusions, that researcher asserted that the apoaequorin supplement was effective in "addressing declines in cognitive function associated with aging."

Despite the positive findings, the study was marred by the highly subjective way in which participants were selected. In the end, self-reported "memory problems" may be caused by any number of things, particularly in people with such vast age differences. Without a cohesive factor to justify the selection (such as a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer's), it would be difficult to draw any reasonable conclusion.

Moreover, the fact that participants were regularly tested throughout the study would invariably result in cognitive improvements. Even in people with early Alzheimer's, routine "brain exercises" will almost invariably improve memory and cognitive function, as would increased social interaction.

Without addressing these and other confounding factors, any conclusions drawn would be misleading or easily misconstrued.

Conclusions and Controversy

Shortcomings like these have enabled manufacturers to make claims that far exceed what the research actually reveals. Certainly with Alzheimer's or any other form of dementia, a brain scan—using computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—would provide far better insights into the effects of the apoaequorin on the brain given the suggested mechanism of action.

The controversy surrounding jellyfish protein reached an apex in 2019 when the manufacturers of Prevagen, a memory-boosting supplement made of synthetic apoaequorin, were hit with a second lawsuit by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for misleading advertising.

In their lawsuit, the FTC accused the manufacturers, Quincy Bioscience, of making "false claims" that Prevagen can improve memory "within 90 days."

The FTC pointed to the Madison Memory Study—a study funded by Quincy Bioscience—in which the said improvements were not considered statistically relevant, even by researchers themselves. Moreover, any "improvements" were seen in healthy or mildly impaired adults rather than in those with significant cognitive impairment.

Possible Side Effects

Little is known about the long-term safety of apoaequorin in any form. Studies utilizing synthetic apoaequorin have suggested that it is safe and well-tolerated for up to 90 days. Common side effects include headache, dizziness, and nausea.

There is not enough research assessing the safety of apoaequorin in pregnant women or nursing baby. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is best to avoid the supplement.

It is also unclear if apoaequorin can cause drug interactions. Speak with our doctor if you are using or intend to use complementary or alternative medicine. This is especially true if you are taking chronic medications or are managing a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Dosage and Preparation

Apoaequorin is found almost exclusively in the United States in the oral supplement Prevagen but is also used as an ingredient in other "memory-boosting" products. Natural apoaequorin derived from crystal jellyfish is not commercially available.

Prevagen is available as an oral or chewable table in 10-mg (regular-strength), 20-mg (extra-strength). and 50-mg (professional-strength) formulations. It is taken once daily in the morning with or without food.

All listed dosages are according to the drug manufacturer. The information should not be construed to mean that the doses are either safe or effective.

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Article Sources

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  1. Shimomura O, Johnson FH, Saiga Y, et al. Extraction, Purification and Properties of Aequorin, a Bioluminescent Protein from the Luminous Hydromedusan, Aequorea. J Cell Compar Physiol. 1962 Jun;59(3):223-39. doi:10.1002/jcp.1030590302.

  2. Morrill GA, Kostellow AB, Gupta RK, et al. Computational comparison of a calcium-dependent jellyfish protein (apoaequorin) and calmodulin-cholesterol in short-term memory maintenance. Neurosci Lett. 2017;642:113-18. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2017.01.069.

  3. United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Summary Order: FTC v. Quincy Bioscience Holding Co. New York City, New York: February 21, 2019.

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