The compound that gives the popular Indian spice curry its mustard yellow color may ward off Alzheimer’s disease (search).

Researchers at UCLA have shown that the curry pigment curcumin (search) slows the formation of, and even destroys, accumulated plaque deposits in mouse brains.

Brain plaque (search), sticky clumps of beta-amyloid protein (search), are believed to play a key role in the development of Alzheimer's dementia.

Curry is a dietary staple in India, a country where the rate of Alzheimer’s disease is among the world’s lowest. For centuries, doctors practicing traditional Indian medicine have safely prescribed curcumin in extract form for a variety of illnesses and ailments.

Researchers say curry's powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties make it a very attractive possibility for treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease.

In studies looking at curcumin’s potential as a chemopreventive therapy, no side effects were seen in patients taking as much as 2,000 to 8,000 mg per day.

For this study, scientists raised two groups of mice, one that was fed a diet high in curcumin and the other a regular diet. Previous research in mice has shown that daily curcumin lowers plaque deposits in the brain.

When fed to aged mice with advanced plaque deposits similar to Alzheimer's disease, the curcumin reduced the amount of plaque.

The scientists then injected curcumin into the brains of the mice with the Alzheimer’s-like condition. The curcumin attached to the plaques, hampering further development of plaque and reducing plaque levels.

Moreover, in other experiments, the researchers showed that curcumin reduced plaque better than the over-the-counter painkillers naproxen and ibuprofen. Some studies have shown that people taking these common anti-inflammatories have a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“The prospect of finding a safe and effective new approach to both prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is tremendously exciting,” Gregory Cole, MD, a professor of medicine and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said in a news release.

The results are published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The study was funded in part by the Alzheimer's Association.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: News release, UCLA. Yang, F. Journal of Biological Chemistry, Dec. 7, 2004, online edition.