“I know they say there is no cure for Alzheimer’s… But I was wondering if there’s any development in a cure you know about?” I was asked after my lecture on PET imaging of dementia this past summer. A number of technologists gathered around me, far more eager to hear my response to this question than they were to hear me speak on the continuing education topics.
The woman asking the question told us an emotional story of living with her father who had Alzheimer’s dementia, which meant she interacted everyday with somebody who had no idea who she was or appreciated all the things she had been doing for him in his old age.
Everybody knows Alzheimer’s robs a person of memory, feelings and personality, but we forget that it also robs the people taking care of that person of happiness, too. Another technologist told us about his favorite teacher who he lost touch with because of the disease. He asked if there was something that could reverse it. “As far as I know, the answer is sadly no.”
While waiting for my airplane back, I became curious if there was something in our food that could prevent Alzheimer’s, which is by far the most common dementia in the United States. When I got home, I scoured the literature. Curcumin (the bioactive component of turmeric, used in day-to-day cooking and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries) kept popping up in my research. Studies on mice seemed to show that curcumin actually reversed a cause of the disease.
The current consensus is that there are probably two causes of Alzheimer's dementia. One cause is an increased production and accumulation of a protein called amyloid-beta 42 around brain cells. The other cause is accumulation of a different protein called tau tangles in brain cells. Both causes trigger inflammation, which is the direct cause of these brain cells dying.
A UCLA researcher named Dr. Gary Cole has shown in both in vitro (meaning outside a living organism, such cultured cells growing in petri dishes) and in vivo experiments (using mice) that curcumin fights the amyloid that accumulates in the brain in Alzheimer's in 3 ways: (1) breaking down accumulation of amyloid-beta plaques, (2) preventing amyloid from forming in the first place, and (3) helping reduce how much cholesterol is available in the brain. (High cholesterol levels have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.)