A dietary staple of India, where Alzheimer's disease rates are reportedly among the World's lowest, holds potential as a weapon in the fight against the disease.
The UCLA-Veterans Affairs study in 2004, involving genetically altered mice suggested that curcumin, the yellow pigment in curry spice, inhibits the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and also breaks up existing plaques. The research team also determined curcumin is more effective in inhibiting formation of the protein fragments than many other drugs being tested as Alzheimer's treatments. The researchers found the low molecular weight and polar structure of curcumin allow it to penetrate the blood-brain barrier effectively and bind to beta amyloid.
In earlier studies, the same research team found curcumin has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which scientists believe help ease Alzheimer's symptoms caused by oxidation and inflammation. ``Curcumin reduced the accumulation of beta-amyloid and the associated loss of proteins'' in the synapses, or gaps, between individual brain cells. Synapses connect nerve cells and are crucial for memory. Keeping synapses free of plaque is important because ``their loss correlates well with memory decline in Alzheimer's”, according to researcher Dr. Sally Frautschy of the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The prospect of finding a safe and effective new approach to both prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease is tremendously exciting," said principal investigator Gregory Cole. He is professor of medicine and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, associate director of the UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, and associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System at Sepulveda, Calif.
"Curcumin has been used for thousands of years as a safe anti-inflammatory in a variety of ailments as part of Indian traditional medicine," Cole said. "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."
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that occurs gradually and results in memory loss, unusual behavior, personality changes, and a decline in thinking abilities. These losses relate to the death of brain cells and the breakdown of the connections between them.
The disease is the most common form of dementing illness among middle and older adults, affecting more than 4 million Americans and many millions worldwide. The prevalence of Alzheimer's among adults ages 70-79 in India, however, is 4.4 times less than the rate in the United States.
Widely used as a food dye and preservative, and in some cancer treatments, curcumin has undergone extensive toxicological testing in animals. It also is used extensively in traditional Indian medicine to treat a variety of ailments.
A different study of more than 1,000 older men in Singapore n 2006 also found that those who ate lots of curry-spiced food did better on memory tests than those who rarely ate the spice. The findings from Singapore suggest curry may help keep the aging brain in top shape. But to get the proof that curcumin fights cancer or Alzheimer's or arthritis, researchers will have to conduct large clinical trials, Cole says, and those studies will be expensive and take years to complete.
Professor Murali Doraiswamy, director of the Mental Fitness Laboratory at the Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Carolina, supported the point that curcumin, from which turmeric is made, might prevent the spread plaque found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Prof Doraiswamy said: "Studies seem to show that you need only consume what is part of the normal diet – but the research studies are testing higher doses to see if they can maximize the effect. It would be equivalent of going on a curry spree for a week. Don't expect an occasional curry to counterbalance a poor lifestyle. However, if you have a good diet and take plenty of exercise, eating curry regularly could help prevent dementia."
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