January 18, 2005
Curcumin, the yellow pigment in the herb turmeric and a key ingredient in curry spice, may have benefits against Alzheimer's disease, a new study reports. The study showed that curcumin reduced the tendency of beta amyloid to form sticky clumps in the brains of mice that had been genetically altered to develop amyloid plaques like those found in Alzheimer's disease patients. Beta amyloid is the potentially toxic substance believed to cause the brain damage of Alzheimer's disease, and its tendency to form sticky clumps results in its toxic effects. Scientists are hopeful that the spice, or some form of medication derived from it, may have benefits for people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles - Veterans Affairs Center also found that the spice broke up plaques that were already present in the mouse brains. Curcumin was also able to reach and penetrate the mouse brains after being ingested.
Earlier studies suggest that curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, protecting cells from damage throughout the body, including the brain. The spice also has inflammation-fighting properties. Increasingly, inflammation is thought to contribute to many maladies of old age, including heart disease and Alzheimer's. However, it is not clear what property of curcumin causes it to prevent plaque buildup.
"The prospect of finding a safe and effective new approach to both prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease is tremendously exciting," said study leader Gregory Cole, professor of medicine and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Curcumin has been used for thousands of years as a safe c in a variety of ailments as part of Indian traditional medicine. Recent successful studies in animal models support a growing interest in its possible use for diseases of aging involving oxidative damage and inflammation like Alzheimer's, cancer, and heart disease. What we really need, however, are clinical trials to establish safe and effective doses in aging patients."
The possible benefits of curry are further bolstered by population studies. In countries like India, where curry is a staple of the everyday diet, rates of Alzheimer's disease may be lower than they are in the United States. The prevalence of Alzheimer's in one Indian community was four times lower among men and women in their 70s than it is in seniors in the U.S. It is not known, however, whether people in India are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or whether those who do develop it die quickly and are not counted in the population studies. It should also be pointed out that diets rich in curry are not the only difference between Indian populations and populations in the U.S. and other countries. If there really is less Alzheimer's disease in India it could result from things unrelated to curry.
The UCLA Alzheimer's Research Center is starting human clinical trials to further evaluate the possible protective and therapeutic effects of curcumin.
F. Yang, G. P. Lim, A. N. Begum, et al: "Curcumin inhibits formation of A oligomers and fibrils and binds plaques and reduces amyloid in vivo." Journal of Biological Chemistry, publishied online December 7, 2004.