Looking to protect your memory? Try adding a little spice to your life. Turmeric, to be exact.
New research shows this zesty staple of Indian fare, which puts the zing in curry sauces, may protect you from the memory loss and eventual mental decline of Alzheimer's disease.
The key appears to lie in a chemical compound called curcumin, which is found in turmeric. Researchers say curcumin reduces inflammation caused by a buildup of a protein known as beta-amyloid, a plaque-like substance that blocks brain cells from communicating with each other and eventually affects your ability to remember. Accumulations of beta-amyloid plaques are linked to Alzheimer's disease.
"We believe curcumin will do three important things: trigger clearance of amyloid already present; reverse oxidative damage contributing to memory loss, [and] reduce toxic substances associated with chronic inflammation," says Sally Frautschy, study co-author and associate professor of medicine and neurology at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
All three actions, she says, work together to protect the ability of brain cells to communicate with one another, which is key in the preservation of memory.
But why single out turmeric, or more specifically curcumin? One reason is because the rate of Alzheimer's disease in India is extremely low -- in many instances, less than 1 percent of people over age 65 are affected. Many believe it is their high dietary intake of turmeric that accounts for the low incidence of disease.
In America, about 3 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have Alzheimer's, and half of those 85 or older have it, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"The study [suggests] that there may be a dietary factor in the Indian diet that makes [this group] have the lowest incidence [of Alzheimer's disease] in the world. One such substance may be curcumin," says Frautschy.
Nutrition experts are intrigued by the finding and agree with the premise.
"Curcumin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and, at least theoretically, it could have the power to reduce inflammation in the brain. And that, in turn, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's," says Jyni Hollander, a nutritionist and registered dietician at New York University Medical Center.
For the animal study, Frautschy and her colleagues injected amyloid proteins into the brains of aged mice to create conditions like those that exist in patients with Alzheimer's. Some mice were then fed a diet high in curcumin, others got a diet low in curcumin. Their brain tissue was later analyzed for inflammation, damage and plaque formation.
What the researchers found: On either diet, the mice had a significant reduction in the build up of amyloid proteins in the tiny spaces between brain cells -- the areas that affect cellular communication linked to memory. The memory function was validated using memory-dependant maze tests.
"We suspect that curcumin is enhancing the inflammatory clearance of the toxic amyloid, while blunting chronic inflammation," says Frautschy.
In previous studies anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin) had similar effects. The problem, however, was that the chronic use of these drugs dramatically increased the risk of toxic side effects. Frautschy says she was searching for a way to duplicate the anti-inflammatory effects of the drug without the toxic reactions -- and that's when she turned to curcumin.
"It has been known for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine that turmeric extracts were beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis -- [and] since the '60s, there have been hundreds of publications on the mechanisms of anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin," says Frautschy.
Believing it could have the same anti-inflammatory effects on the brain as it does in the joints, she put the spice to the test -- and it passed with flying colors.
"Unlike ibuprofen, curcumin has the additional benefit of reducing oxidative damage of the brain, which is several-fold elevated in Alzheimer's disease and likely contributes greatly to memory loss," says Frautschy.
Hollander believes the potential for this tasty spice looms large. "If the animal results translate to human results, it could be a very exciting, natural alternative method of protecting the brain from this devastating illness," she says.
Frautschy presented her findings at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, Calif.
And her research just received a boost of support when an unrelated group of scientists offered evidence that her theories about inflammation are right on target.
In a new study published in the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of California scientists showed that, even when plaque didn't form in the brain, soluble forms of amyloid created inflammation that they believe contributes to the memory loss and eventual dementia of Alzheimer's disease.
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