Keeping our brain healthy and functioning to its full potential requires many factors – such as balanced nutrition, clean environment and minimal bumps to the head. Due to the increasing age of the global population and the rising incidence of dementia and other neurological conditions, there is a lot of research going on in the field of brain health – both with a view towards treatment, and increasingly, towards prevention. Many natural extracts have been studied for their potential ability to influence the health of our brains – while there is some encouraging work with a few extracts showing treatment potential in animals, the real strength of natural extracts at this stage is proving to be more in the area of prevention.
A significant problem
The number of people worldwide living with dementia is estimated to be around 47.5 million; this number is predicted to increase to 75.6 million by 2030 and 135.5 million by 2050 (World Health Organisation, 2015). New Zealand is following the same upward trajectory, with 2011 figures showing over 48,000 Kiwis with dementia – increasing three fold to an estimated 147,000 by the year 2050. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) represents nearly 60% of all dementia patients
How does curcumin help?
Let's look at curcumin, a natural extract and the research indicating its role in the maintenance of healthy brain tissue. Curcumin is the main active component of the bright yellow culinary spice turmeric. Researchers started looking at the role of curcumin in dementia based on the observance that the Indian population had a very low prevalence of AD and diet rich in curcumin (from curry). In vitro studies demonstrated a neuroprotective and antioxidant effect of curcumin; researchers also found that curcumin has the ability to cross the very selective blood brain barrier, meaning that the effects of this compound could have a direct benefit to brain tissue. Animal studies on curcumin found it was able to prevent damage and generate new cells in the brain; these benefits are thought to be due to the compound’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity.
While several pre-clinical studies provide evidence that supports curcumin’s efficacy against the pathology of AD, only a few human trials have been completed, with mixed results – this is possibly due to the duration of the studies not being long enough (AD is a slow developing disease), dosing and bioavailability issues. But there is still a lot of potential for this botanical extract, it just may be that it is more effective as neuroprotective agent than as a reversal medication, meaning it has more benefit for prevention than treatment of AD. Finally, new research has found that curcumin could boost the levels of DHA in the brain by increasing the conversion from other omega-3 precursors in the liver.
Where to from here?
While it’s fair to say there is more research required before curcumin can be considered an effective treatment for AD and dementia, there is certainly increasing evidence to suggest it can help to protect the brain from chronic inflammation and injury – what’s more, the studies so far have found curcumin to be safe and well tolerated by most subjects, so it really can’t hurt to be including it in your diet or via a supplement now.
1. World Health Organisation ‘10 facts on dementia’ March 2015 http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/dementia/en/
2. Alzheimer’s New Zealand ‘Dementia Economic Impact Report 2012’ http://www.alzheimers.org.nz/information/reports-statistics
3. Natascia Brondino, Simona Re, Annalisa Boldrini, Antonella Cuccomarino, Niccolò Lanati, Francesco Barale, and Pierluigi Politi ‘Curcumin as a Therapeutic Agent in Dementia: A Mini Systematic Review of Human Studies’ The Scientific World Journal, 22 January 2014; ID 174282
4. Natural Standard Database ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’ https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/medical-conditions/a/alzheimers-disease.aspx 5. Wu A, Noble EE, Tyagi E, Ying Z, Zhuang Y, Gomez-Pinilla F. ‘Curcumin boosts DHA inthe brain: Implications for the prevention of anxiety disorders.’ Biochemic et Biophysica Acta, 2015 May; 1825(2):951-961
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