Turmeric comes from the ginger family and, in spice form, is typically used to make curry powder.
They publish their results in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy.
The bioactive compound found in the spice is called aromatic (ar-) turmerone, and previous studies have shown it can block activation of microglial cells. When they are activated, these cells cause neuroinflammation, which is linked to certain neurological disorders.
Until this latest study, however, the impact of ar-turmerone's impact on the brain's self-repair ability was unknown, the researchers say.
They explain that they focused on endogenous neural stem cells (NSC) - stem cells found in adult brains. These NSCs differentiate into neurons, playing an important role in self-repair of brain function in diseases such as Alzheimer's.
To further investigate, the team tested ar-turmerone's effects on NSC in live adult rats by injecting them with ar-turmerone.
After using PET imaging and a tracer to find proliferating cells, the team observed that the subventricular zone (SVZ) was wider and the hippocampus expanded in the brains of the rats injected with the compound, compared with those that did not receive the compound.
The researchers explain that the SVZ and hippocampus are the two sites in adult mammalian brains were the growth of neurons occurs.
'One step closer to achieving major goal in regenerative medicine'
To further test the effects of ar-turmerone, the researchers also cultured and grew rat fetal NSCs in six different concentrations of the compound for 72 hours.
They found that, in certain concentrations, the compound increased NSC proliferation by up to 80% without impacting cell death whatsoever. In addition, the cell differentiation process sped up in the cells treated with the compound, compared with the untreated control cells.
Commenting on their findings, lead author Adele Rueger says:
"While several substances have been described to promote stem cell proliferation in the brain, fewer drugs additionally promote the differentiation of stem cells into neurons, which constitutes a major goal in regenerative medicine. Our findings on aromatic turmerone take us one step closer to achieving this goal."
Turmeric contains another compound called curcumin, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective features.
Medical News Today recently reported on a breakthrough in drug-developing techniques. Researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK said they developed a new process for creating a specific synthetic amino acid, which could provide innovative new treatments for cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
Meanwhile, researchers from the Mayo Clinic said they have identified a defect in a brain signaling pathway that could contribute to the development of Alzheimer's, potentially leading to prevention strategies or treatments.