The Spice That Could Keep Alzheimer’s Away

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

When I saw a recent study saying that a common kitchen spice may help sweep something called cellular metal toxicity from the brain — specifically excessive amounts of iron and copper, which have been linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — it made me want to spice up my life.

I’m talking about curcumin, a phytochemical that is found in the spice turmeric. This intriguing study comes from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston — it was published in Journal of Biological Chemistry. We’ve been learning for years that this phytochemical can prevent and treat many diseases, such as certain cancers, but this is the first study to suggest that curcumin is also beneficial to the brain.


Lead study author Muralidhar Hegde, PhD, and senior author Sankar Mitra, PhD, noted that our bodies naturally contain trace amounts of certain metals, including copper and iron. In small amounts, these metals are not only harmless but essential for good health. But some people’s brain cells — for reasons that scientists don’t yet completely understand — start accumulating large amounts of copper or iron, which can wreak havoc.

If you have a large amount of iron and copper in your brain cells, the extra “free” metals overwhelm the proteins that are supposed to store them and start causing two major problems. First, they initiate chemical reactions that lead to DNA damage. And then, to make matters worse, Dr. Hegde and colleagues found, they also interfere with DNA repair enzymes that attempt to fix the damage. Since too much unrepaired DNA damage can lead to neurodegenerative disorders, that’s one scary situation.


But it’s not all doom and gloom. The researchers tested several chemicals called metal chelators and natural dietary and/or plant components in petri dishes to see if any of the substances would help keep iron and copper stored so they wouldn’t interfere with the DNA repair enzymes. All the substances tested worked to some extent, but there was one that worked better than all the rest — curcumin. “Curcumin appeared to stop the metals from blocking the DNA repair by more than 90% to 95% — so it essentially reversed the damage to the genetic material,” said Dr. Hegde.

A natural remedy that may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease is exciting to think about — but, said Dr. Hegde, it’s important to keep the nature of this particular finding in context. Animal testing is in order to confirm that curcumin is an effective treatment and to know exactly how much curcumin belongs in the ideal dose, then researchers can move on to human studies.

In the meantime, since what we are talking about is just a common spice, what can’t hurt — and might greatly help — is to consume greater quantities of curcumin in foods like Indian and Asian dishes.


Muralidhar Hegde, PhD, research scientist, and Sankar Mitra, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas