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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 9, 2006

A spice in curry may be good for your brain

By Amy Tousman

Q. Can eating curry prevent Alzheimer's disease?

A. Curry may help protect the aging brain. Curcumin, a substance in the turmeric that gives curry its yellow color, possesses potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Oxidation and inflammation are suspects in plaque formation in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Several recent studies have added to the growing body of evidence linking curry to brain health.

This month's issue of The American Journal of Epidemiology reports on elderly Asians who were asked how often they ate curry. Participants were then tested to assess cognitive function including items dealing with memory, attention and spatial relationships. Even those who consumed curry occasionally (less often than once a month, but more often than once in six months) had significantly better results than those who ate it less often.

These results are the first human population studies supporting a link between curry consumption and cognitive performance in humans. Earlier studies showing positive results were done on mice and rats, and also in test tubes.

A study done in rats in 2004 showed that curcumin may activate a key enzyme that protects the brain against oxidation. Curry was found to induce expression of a gene that helps protect brain cells exposed to an oxidizing agent.

The current issue of The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease reports on a new study showing that curcumin helps the immune system dispose of a protein called amyloid beta. Amyloid beta builds up to form damaging plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Although the immune system can remove this protein, the job is not done properly in Alzheimer's patients. Curcumin seems to help that process along.

This study shows that in addition to its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, curcumin is involved with the actual cleanup of plaques. This study used blood samples from Alzheimer's patients but was done in a test tube. More work is needed to see if the spice works in a similar way in the human brain.

Yellow curries are a staple dish in India, where the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among India's elderly is only 1 percent about a quarter of the rate seen in the United States.

There are many things that contribute to brain health, such as exercise, stimulating activities and healthy diets. Now we may be able to add yellow curry to that list. Go ahead and enjoy that curry stew.

Amy Tousman is a registered dietitian and diabetes educator. Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine and diet take turns writing the Prescriptions column. Send questions to: Prescriptions, Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com; or fax 535-8170. This column is not intended to provide medical advice.