Turmeric is the spice that makes everything nice, including memory. The compound responsible for turmeric’s yellow color, curcumin, has been shown to boost the memory and attention span of older adults, as reported in a recent study.
Turmeric has long been treasured for its powerful medicinal properties. Loaded with bioactive compounds, turmeric has been used in Chinese and Indian systems of medicine to treat a host of health problems, including jaundice, menstrual difficulties, toothaches and chest pain. More recently, researchers based in Australian have unearthed evidence that turmeric can help maintain cognitive function with age.
Previous studies have suggested that older populations living in areas where curry – a cuisine from the Indian Subcontinent packed with spices and herbs – is widely available have significantly lower levels of dementia and better cognitive performance. Curcumin, the compound present in turmeric, has been established as the likely cause of these therapeutic effects.
Probing the cognitive benefits of turmeric
Professor Andrew Scholey, lead researcher of the study and director of Swinburne’s Center for Human Pscyhopharmacology, has been studying the impact medicinal herbs and spices have on the human brain for two decades.
“Curcumin has multiple physiological effects,” he said. “It’s known to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow. It influences multiple processes that nudge brain function in a positive direction,” he added.
In their original research, Scholey and his colleagues mobilized 60 volunteers between 60 and 85 years of age, and divided them into two groups. One group received capsules containing a solid lipid curcumin formulation, which is easier to absorb than pure curcumin, and the other group received a placebo.
“The main things older people fear about ageing are the loss of energy and the loss of mental function,” Scholey said.
The participants were then asked to perform various computerized mental exercises, such as remembering pictures and words, basic subtraction and reaction time tasks, a few hours after they had taken the supplement. They continued to perform these tasks after taking the supplement daily for a period of four weeks.
Patient memory improves just hours after taking turmeric
On the whole, participants who had taken the curcumin capsules performed significantly better on computer tasks used to judge working memory and vigilance, when compared to the control group. In addition, the participants in the capsule group reported that their working memory and attention spans significantly improved just a few hours after taking the supplement. They also claimed to experience less fatigue, in addition to feeling more calm and content, during the four week study.
“To our knowledge this is the first study to examine the effects of curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population or to examine any acute behavioural effects in humans,” the researchers noted in the Journal of Psychopharmacology last year. The curcumin compound is currently licensed in Australia by Blackmores. The project was recognized as University Research of the Year in the inaugural NutraIngredients Awards, according to an article published in Swinburne’s new Research Impact magazine.
“A significant acute-on-chronic treatment effect on alertness and contentedness was also observed. Curcumin was associated with significantly reduced total and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and had no effect on haematological safety measures,” the researchers noted.
Researchers at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology have been allocated grant money to continue investigating the properties of turmeric, reviewing neuro-imaging and genetic markers to shed light on curcumin’s potential psychological and cognitive benefits. The center, which touts itself as a world class facility, was tailor made for this kind of clinical research.
Other research projects to be conducted at the facility include the impact diet has on the generation of new cells in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain responsible for memory, as well as the effects a Mediterranean diet and mild exercise can have on cognitive performance for residents living in nursing homes.
Author: S. Johnson
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