It’s always noteworthy when a scientist makes a lifestyle alteration based on the results of their own research. It means they have uncovered some information that has more than just theoretical interest. So, when Dr. Sally Frautschy, associate professor of medicine at UCLA, decided to eat curry four times a week,it seemed she was on to something. Indeed, she had become convinced by her work that curry powder, with its dose of turmeric, was potentially protective against Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists first became interested in turmeric when they noted that Alzheimer’s Disease was rare in India. Curry of course is a dietary staple there and has a history of folkloric use as a medicine. It is used as a household remedy for sprains and swellings, the kinds of conditions for which we would use anti-inflammatory drugs. That’s an interesting connection because recent evidence suggests that Alzheimer’s has an inflammatory component. The disease is characterized by a buildup of deposits in the brain made of a protein called beta-amyloid. These abnormal deposits then cause inflammation which in turn destroys cells. If curcumin, the major ingredient in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory effects, it makes sense that it might be of some help in Alzheimer’s.
But there is another point that makes curcumin research worthwhile. Presently, the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s with certainty is upon autopsy. The beta-amyloid deposits are identified using a stain called Congo red. This dye binds selectively to beta-amyloid making it visible under the microscope. Well, curcumin has a molecular structure similar to Congo red, so it is reasonable to think that it also binds to beta-amyloid. And if this is the case, maybe it can somehow inactivate the troublesome protein. This is what Dr. Frautschy decided to investigate. She injected beta-amyloid into the brains of rats to mimic Alzheimer’s, and then fed the animals a diet rich in curcumin. Indeed, the compound was absorbed from the animals’ digestive tract and made it to their brain, where it not only reduced the accumulation of beta-amyloid, but also broke down some existing deposits. Perhaps even more exciting was the observation that rats fed curcumin also performed better on maze tests than rats fed a normal diet. Recent experiments have even shown that when curcumin is added to human beta-amyloid proteins in the test tube, it prevents the protein molecules from aggregating into fibers which make up the characteristic plaque seen in Alzheimer’s patients. And the benefits of curcumin may not stop at reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers at Leicester University in England noted that out of 500 patients diagnosed with colon cancer, only two were Asian, despite 20% of the city’s population being Asian. Could curry play a role here as well? Indeed, the incidence of colon cancer in India is much lower than that in North America. So maybe we should not be surprised that Dr. Frautschy has upped her curry intake. She says that a tablespoon of curry powder, which contains about 200 mg of curcumin, should do the trick. Anyone for curry?