Curry Spice May Fight Alzheimer's
Tue Jan 4, 2005 11:58 PM ET

By Amy Norton
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The pigment that gives curry spice its yellow hue may also be able to break up the "plaques" that mark the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients, early research suggests.

Scientists found that curcumin, a component of the yellow curry spice turmeric, was able to reduce deposits of beta-amyloid proteins in the brains of elderly lab mice that ate curcumin as part of their diets.

In addition, when the researchers added low doses of curcumin to human beta-amyloid proteins in a test tube, the compound kept the proteins from aggregating and blocked the formation of the amyloid fibers that make up Alzheimer's plaques.

Accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease.

The new findings suggest that curcumin could be capable of both treating Alzheimer's and lowering a person's risk of developing the disease, said study co-author Dr. Gregory M. Cole of the University of California Los Angeles and the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

Cole and his colleagues have gotten funding to begin a small trial in humans suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"The big question is how high are the doses we need to fight Alzheimer's and are they really safe in elderly patients?" he told Reuters Health.

The current findings, published online recently by the Journal of Biological Chemistry, add to the body of research pointing to curcumin's medicinal value. Long used as part of traditional Indian medicine, curcumin is now under study as a potential cancer therapy, and animal research has suggested the compound might serve as a treatment for multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis.

Interest in curcumin as an Alzheimer's therapy grew after studies found low rates of the disease among elderly adults in India, where curry spice is a dietary staple.

Curcumin is structurally similar to a stain known as Congo red, which is used by pathologists to identify amyloid protein in autopsied brain tissue in order to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease after a patient's death.

Curcumin can also stain amyloid deposits, Cole said, but it has the additional ability, when eaten or injected, to cross into a living animal's brain and bind to amyloid deposits.

What's more, he explained, curcumin is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, and it appears to counter the oxidative damage and inflammation that arises in response to amyloid accumulation.

"It attacks both the amyloid and the response to amyloid," Cole said.

Because oxidative damage and inflammation mark a number of diseases of aging - such as arthritis and the buildup of plaques in the heart's arteries - Cole said he and his colleagues hope that curcumin eventually proves useful for a range of age-related conditions.

SOURCE: Journal of Biological Chemistry, online Dec. 7, 2004.