Some day, we may turn to turmeric, that bright yellow spice used in Indian cooking, to not only flavor our curry, but to reduce our risk for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.
People with Alzheimer’s have progressive problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. It is the most common form of dementia, and unfortunately, despite numerous clinical trials there are few effective treatments. However, according to several animal studies, taking curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may help treat and even prevent the disease.
Studies on curcumin as an anti-Alzheimer’s nutraceutical (i.e. food product with health benefits) were sparked by the low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in India, where people consume turmeric everyday. That, and the fact that curcumin is known to have several health benefits such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, have made scientists wonder, can taking turmeric protect the brain?
One of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. Studies suggest that increased production and decreased removal of beta-amyloid protein, which then clumps together and forms sticky plaques in the brain, is the main cause of the disease. It is thought that the collection of small beta-amyloid clusters begins 20 years or more before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Therefore interventions that can either reduce the production of beta-amyloid, inhibit the collection of the small clusters, or encourage the removal of beta-amyloid years before the onset of the disease, will likely turn out to be the most effective.
Here’s where curcumin comes in.
Animal studies have found that curcumin can attach to beta-amyloid preventing it from collecting and clustering. It has also been found to break apart existing clusters. In fact, curcumin has even been found to disrupt the production of beta-amyloid in the first place.
One study found that it ramps up beta-amyloid removal, reporting a 30% plaque size reduction and slowed plaque development in animals receiving intravenous curcumin. This is promising stuff.
It’s easy to see why scientists are excited about curcumin. But unfortunately, to date, human studies on curcumin and brain health have been disappointing. Clinical trials have found limited benefit, likely due to the low absorption and bioavailability of curcumin in the human system. Simply, curcumin can’t get into the brain in a useful form.