Researchers in the past several years have identified compounds that have strong effects against factors suspected to be responsible for much of the damage to the brain seen in Alzheimer’s Disease patients. Two of these compounds, curcumin and rosmarinic acid, are found in widely used spices and herbs such as turmeric (a yellow Indian curry spice) and rosemary, sage, thyme, and mint variants such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and thus herbs and spices may represent safe and relatively inexpensive sources for these compounds. A third compound, Thioflavin T, is a dye used in research and diagnostic settings.
India and Southeast Asian are areas where turmeric and curcumin are widely consumed. It has been noted that their age-adjusted rate of Alzheimer’s Disease seems notably lower (only around 20% to 25% of Western nations by some studies) than that of populations that do not consume so much turmeric and curcumin. There’s an interesting map of Alzheimer’s and dementia death rates by country that further illustrates very drastic regional differences, but unfortunately it does not appear to be age-adjusted.
Medical Research Dye Binds to Amyloid Beta Proteins
Of the three compounds, the yellowish medical dye Thioflavin T appears it may have the highest activity at aiding the body in eliminating the amyloid beta proteins believed to be a primary culprit in Alzeimer’s Disease. The dye is widely used in medical research for Alzheimer’s, but the safety and efficacy in live humans has not yet been established. How they work is not totally clear, but it appears it may involve multiple mechanisms. It is thought that the dye destabilizes amyloid beta proteins to make them fall apart, prevents clumping and abnormal folding of proteins, and “tags” amyloid beta thereby making it easier for the immune system to identify and attack these toxic substances.
The researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging who studied Thioflavin T examined the effects of 10 compounds and noted that in addition to Thioflavin T, curcumin also looks particularly promising. Like Thioflavin T, curcumin was noted for its ability to improve the lifespans two groups of nematode worms (species Caenorhabditis elegans), one that was normal and another that was bred to be used as a model for Alzheimer’s Disease. Both compounds appear to “slow aging” by reducing the buildup of damaged proteins in the worms. Following these exciting findings, the researchers are moving on to studies in mice.
The study found that Thioflavin T could boost nematode lifespan by about 78%, adding about two weeks life to the worms that normally live about two to three weeks. The researchers have filed a patent on using Thioflavin T to increase lifespan.
Curcumin Counteracts Amyloid Beta Proteins
Curcumin is among the main active ingredients in the yellowish Indian spice turmeric that has been used for more than 2000 years in Indian and Chinese cuisine and medicine. The researchers who identified the mechanisms for action for Thioflavin T think that curcumin may also operate a lot like Thioflavin T. Curcumin and a compound rifamicin added about 45% to lifespan to the nematode worms in the study, not as much as the 78% for Thioflavin T but still very significant.
Both Thioflavin T and curcumin appear to inhibit buildup of amyloid beta proteins and to help eradicate those already formed. Thus it is possible that therapies could be developed both for preventative uses as well as for treating patients who already suffer from Alzheimer’s. One potential challenge is that there is little evidence as to whether either compound crosses the blood-brain barrier effectively.
Presently it is much easier for the average consumer to obtain curcumin and turmeric products than Thioflavin T. That’s probably a good thing because researchers found that very high dosages of Thioflavin T can kill nematode worms via toxicity. Thus there is reason to believe there may be a higher risk of toxic side effects in humans from the dye than there is from curcumin.
Curcumin Researched for Role Against TNF-a Inflammation
Epidemiological studies have suggested that a lower rate of Alzheimer’s in Indian populations that eat a lot of the spice might have something to do with the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric. Curcumin in the past decade or so has become widely known for its ability to inhibit activity of the inflammatory cytokine Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-a) and is being researched for use in many diseases involving inflammatory conditions including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, atherosclerosis, and asthma. It’s also being studied for use in fighting sepsis and radiation induced tissue damage, both of which feature great harm caused by inflammation.
Curcumin is one of the components of turmeric, but there are others such a turmeric oils that are believed to have effect against the inflammatory PGE2 (prostaglandin E2), unlike curcumin itself. Curcumin has also been found to inhibit COX-2 and NF-kB (Nuclear Factor kappa B) which are additional inflammatory factors. NF-kB is known to promote the generation of TNF-a and IL-1 (Interleukin 1) and IL-6 (Interleukin 6) inflammatory factors that are often elevated in Alzheimer’s patients, so it’s possible that curcumin could be highly beneficial at fighting the illness from many angles involving inflammatory processes.
TNF-a Inhibitor Enbrel Found to Benefit Alzheimer’s Patients
In 2008, researchers announced that the drug Enbrel (generic name etanercept) when injected into cerebrospinal fluid (known as perispinal administration) reaches the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and causes a major improvement in symptoms starting in just minutes after treatment. It is believed the effect is largely due to Enbrel’s inhibition of TNF-a. Reports are that cognitive ability, mood, and daily activities all improve markedly in patients getting perispinal Enbrel injections. As exciting as this news is, the therapy is expensive and invasive and the medicine itself is also expensive. Interestingly, Enbrel was originally developed for treating arthritis via its TNF-a inhibition in which it mops up excess TNF-a in the body before it can produce inflammatory damage. Enbrel for arthritis is administered via subcutaneous injection.
Rosmarinic Acid Fights Oxidative Damage Related to Amyloid Beta Proteins
Rosmarinic acid, found in many common herbs including rosemary, sage, and thyme, works as an antioxidant that is particularly potent at fighting peroxynitrites associated with amyloid beta damage. Thus herbal sources of rosmarinic acid could make a good addition to any kind of therapy using curcumin for Alzheimer’s, helping to mop up free radicals triggered by the toxic proteins. Curcumin itself is also reputed to have antioxidant effects.
Many supplements have antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory properties are helpful for a wide variety of health conditions. However, each individual compound tends to be capable of acting on only one or at most a few forms of free radicals or inflammatory factors. Thus it is often helpful to mix and match compounds and supplements to achieve a broad action against many kinds of oxidative and inflammatory agents.
For instance, green tea extracts containing catechins and EGCG have also been mentioned as possibly beneficial to ameliorating oxidative damage from conditions such as Alzheimer’s. There’s also research suggesting that EGCG itself may help prevent formation of amyloid beta plaques.
Poor Bioavailability of Common Turmeric and Curcumin Supplements
One of the big challenges to effectively using turmeric as a nutritional supplement is the poor bioavailability of curcumin in its raw form. It’s possible to increase absorption somewhat by eating it with some oily foods, but studies on curcumin absorption in humans indicate that the vast majority of it is excreted via digestive tract waste. Fortunately, there at at least four major types of enhanced bioavailability curcumin supplements introduced during the last several years. For more information, please read High Bioavailability Curcumin Supplements from Indena, Dolcas Biotech, and Verdure Sciences.
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