Turmeric has been linked to a wealth of health benefits. Last year, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that turmeric could help to treat pancreatic cancer, while other research claims the popular spice may help to treat stroke and Alzheimer's disease.
It is turmeric's abundance of a compound called curcumin that makes it so special. Studies have shown that curcumin is an antioxidant, meaning that it can protect our cells against damage caused by free radicals. It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.
The new study — recently published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry — provides further evidence that curcumin can protect the brain.
First study author Dr. Gary Small, of the Longevity Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues tested the compound on 40 adults aged between 51 and 84, all of whom had mild memory problems.
For a total of 18 months, the participants were randomized to one of two groups. One group took 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily, while the other group took a placebo.
The curcumin used in this study was a bioavailable form called Theracurmin, which the researchers describe as a "form of curcumin with increased intestinal endothelium penetrability."
Curcumin may have cognitive benefits
At study baseline, all participants underwent standard cognitive tests, and these were repeated every 6 months throughout the study, as well as at the end of the study.
Additionally, 30 of the subjects — 15 of whom who were receiving curcumin — had positron emission tomography (PET) scans of their brain at the beginning and end of the study.
These scans were conducted in order to assess levels of the beta-amyloid and tau, which are proteins that are considered a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Research has suggested that an increase in levels of beta-amyloid and tau can occur up to 15 years before symptoms of Alzheimer's arise, suggesting that the proteins may be an early indicator of the disease.
Results revealed that the subjects who took curcumin twice daily demonstrated a 28 percent improvement in memory tests over the course of the study, while those who took the placebo showed no significant memory improvements.
Subjects who received curcumin also experienced slight improvements in mood, unlike those who took the placebo.
What is more, participants who took curcumin also had lower levels of beta-amyloid and tau in the hypothalamus and amygdala brain regions, which are regions that play key roles in memory and emotion.
"These results suggest that taking this relatively safe form of curcumin could provide meaningful cognitive benefits over the years."
Dr. Gary Small, first author
The side effects of curcumin were mild, the team reports; four people experienced abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms, but so did two of the placebo-treated participants. One subject who received curcumin experienced "a temporary feeling of heat and pressure in the chest."
According to Dr. Small and colleagues, a follow-up study is in the pipeline. It will involve a larger number of participants, including people with mild depression and individuals with a genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease.
The aim of the research will be to determine whether certain factors — such as age, the severity of cognitive problems, and the presence of Alzheimer's-related genes — might influence the effects of curcumin on mood and memory.