With aging, comes slowness, both physical and mental. Jeff Cummings MD, one of my thoughtful and inspiring professors at UCLA, suggests that there may be ways to slow the decline. Dr. Cummings works in the world of neurobehavior, the interface of brain and action. He has done high quality research which gives us some possible tools to change the curve of the aging brain. Dr. Cummings is one of the authors in a study published in 2005 which says that there is a potential role for the curry spice curcumin (turmeric) in the PREVENTION or TREATMENT of Alzheimer's Disease.

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the buildup of amyloid protein "plaques" within the brain. His review of the literature states that in rat studies, curcumin not only reduces the amyloid, but also reduces the brain's response to the amyloid.

Curcuma longa Linn is a plant, also known as turmeric, is a member of the Xingiberaceae or ginger family. It has yellow flowers and aromatic, somewhat fleshy rhizomes that, when dried, yield a bright yellow powder commonly used as a spice or coloring agent-sometimes both, as in certain yellow mustards. Turmeric contains potent antioxidant chemicals whose action inhibits the oxidative degradation of foodstuffs. This plant is indigenous to South and Southeast Asia where it is grown for commerical use.

Southeast Asia is the fabled source of the spices that Marco Polo and those who followed him brought back to Europe to enliven the dull fare that had been eaten there for millennia. The wealthy people of Europe became enamored of spices, which were more highly prized than gold and jewels for as long as they remained rare. Eventually they flooded the market and were joyfully embraced by everyone. The spices also served the practical purpose to mask the odor and taste of rancid meat and they inhibited further spoilage. This was vital in light of the fact that this was the era before refrigeration.

Curry, the quintessential Asian spice, is a pungent seasoning prepared from cumin, coriander, turmeric and other spices native to that continent. The turmeric in curry has attracted the attention of scientists, in part because turmeric has a long history of medicinal use in India, particularly in the traditional medical philosophy known as Ayurvedic. Also, since turmeric can protect foodstuffs from oxidative degration, perhaps it can do the same for our bodies which are composed of former foodstuffs. It stands to reason that the oxidative chemical reaction that can protect a piece of beef from spoiling can also protect our tissues from spoiling. The chemical compounds in turmeric that are primarily responsible for its antioxidant action are curcumin and the related compounds called curcuminoids. The belong to a broad class of compounds called polyphenols.

A colleague of Dr. Cummings, Sally Frautschy at the Sepulveda VA in Los Angeles fed rats curcumin. She reported that "curcurmin reduced the accumulation of beta-amyloid and the associated loss of proteins" in the synapses, or gaps, between individual brain cells. Rats fed curcumin performed better in memory-dependent maze tests. Curcurmin also appeared to reduce Alzheimer's-related infammation in neurological tissues.

The daily dosage is not clear. Greg Cole PhD of UCLA is involved with a pilot study of 2000 and 4000 mg of curcumin per day. The dose is high because curcumin is poorly soluble and poorly absorbed. It should be taken with a fatty meal. He suggests the people start at 500-1000 mg per day.

In summary, curcumin appears to be a natural neuroprotectant. Curcumin is a supplement and supplements are a crowded field full of hype and misinformation. However, with the aid of good research, including studies by Professor Cummings, help for the aging brain may be here. At the very least, it is something to think about. It is fun to think about thinking. Right now, I am focused on how to preserve it.






About the Author

Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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