Curcumin: A Way to Prevent and Treat Alzheimer's Diease?

Curcumin/Maximilian Stock Ltd. Collection: Photolibrary /Getty Images.

What Is Curcumin?

Curcumin is found in the spice turmeric and has emerged as a possible tool to help keep our brains healthy. Turmeric is often used in curries and in other Indian and Asian foods.

Curcumin is also referred to as saffron.

What Does Research Say about Curcumin?

Several studies have been conducted to investigate the potential health benefits of curcumin, specifically for prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Here are summaries of a few of them:

In 2013, researchers fed two groups of mice the same diets, but added curcumin to the food for half of those mice. After 5 months, the researchers compared the two groups of mice. They found that those who received the curcumin displayed improved mitochondrial functioning compared to those who did not receive the curcumin. What does that mean for humans? Although are brains are far more complex than those of mice, our brains also require healthy mitochondrial functioning to convert oxygen and nutrients into usable energy for our brain cells to communicate with each other and with other cells in our bodies. Mitochondrial function generally declines as people age, but if this benefit in mice translates to improved brain health, curcumin could be an effective and natural way to protect the health of our brains.

Another study published in 2013 conducted research with mice who were bred to develop the equivalent of Alzheimer's disease.The mice were given different doses of curcumin and then studied for the results.

The researchers found that the mice who were given a low dose of curcumin improved in both function (such as memory) and the actual structure and health of the brain itself. The mice who were given a higher dose of curcumin showed an even greater improvement in both areas.

One other study outlined in 2012 looked at rats whose carotid blood flow was restricted to mimic the effects of cardiovascular disease.

The rats' cognitive abilities were assessed and found to be decreased in these conditions; however, they demonstrated a significant improvement in their memory and spatial orientation after receiving curcumin for four weeks. The rats who received the curcumin also showed higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels which are associated with improved cognitive functioning.

Research has also been conducted on a small scale to assess whether turmeric (the spice curcumin is derived from) affects the behavioral and psychological symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Three people with advanced Alzheimer's disease were studied. After twelve weeks of receiving turmeric, all three of the people demonstrated a marked decrease in those behaviors, and one experienced a significant increase in cognitive functioning. The other two did not show much change in the cognitive tests but did improve enough to recognize their family throughout the treatment. 

Challenges with Curcumin

While the above research is encouraging, there are some challenges with using curcumin to fight dementia.

Curcumin is difficult for humans to absorb, and absorption rates appear to vary. It can cause side effects including nausea and diarrhea, it can also interact negatively with other medications, and high amounts of curcumin can be toxic. Additionally, curcumin sold as a health supplement is not well-regulated for quality and potency.

Rates of Alzheimer's disease, however, do appear to be lower in countries where curries are frequently eaten (such as India), and several clinical trials are in process.

Be sure to ask your physician prior to considering changing your diet to increase your consumption of curcumin.

Related Research

In 2011 and more recently in 2013, a drug called J147 demonstrated considerable success in treating Alzheimer's in mice. The base of this drug is curcumin. This study is outlined here: New Drug Shows Significant Success in Treating Alzheimer's in Mice


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Expert Reviews in Molecular Medicine. 2011 Nov 4;13:e34. Challenges associated with curcumin therapy in Alzheimer disease.

International Journal of Cancer. Volume 12, Issue 7. October 14, 2009. The dark side of curcumin.

Molecular Neurodegeneration 2012, 7(Suppl 1):1186/1750-1326-7-S1-S3.. Curcumin preserves cognitive function and improve serum HDL in chronic cerebral hypoperfusion aging-rats.

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Neurology India. 2012 Nov-Dec;60(6):625-30. Incidence of Alzheimer's disease in India: a 10 years follow-up study.

Newcastle University. What do mitochondria do? Accessed January 28, 2014.

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