Hot Tip: Curry May Protect Aging Brain

Spice Protects Brain Cells, Could Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on April 19, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

April 19, 2004 -- Small doses of curry could help protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease -- at least that's the effect in rats. How it translates to humans has yet to be determined.

A new study provides more evidence that culinary spices indeed play a role in good health. For example, studies have shown that cinnamon can improve glucose (blood sugar) and cholesterol levels in the blood in people with type 2 diabetes and those fighting high cholesterol. Cloves, bay leaves, and turmeric have also shown promise in improving diabetes.

The spices appear to protect cells, tissues, and arteries against the damaging effects of free radicals in the bloodstream. Free radicals are the by-products of cell processes that damage cells. Mounting evidence shows that this type of cell damage in the brain also leads to Alzheimer's disease.

The new finding about curry is being presented this week at an annual scientific conference in Washington held by the American Physiological Society.

Brains and Curry

Curcumin, also known as turmeric, is a natural spice that has high levels of phenols -- potent antioxidants that prevent cell damage caused by free radicals. Curcumin is extracted from the root of the Curcuma longa plant. Turmeric provides the distinctive yellow color to curry powder, a blend of several spices.

Curcumin triggers an enzyme known as hemeoxygenase-1 or HO-1, which protects cells from free radical damage that causes inflammation and tissue damage -- the root of various diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, writes researcher Claudia Colombrita, PhD, with the Universita di Catania in Italy

In their study, researchers exposed rat brain cells to various concentrations of curcumin, then analyzed the cells 24 hours later. Indeed, they found HO-1 as well as two other protective enzymes. However, higher concentrations of curcumin caused substantial cell damage -- with no increase in the protective HO-1 protein, she reports.

While her results appear promising, much more study is needed to determine levels of curcumin that could protect against Alzheimer's disease.

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SOURCES: Colombrita, C. American Physiological Society. WebMD Medical News: "Cinnamon Helps Type 2 Diabetes."

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