If you enjoy eating Indian food, you will be happy with this exciting news. A study published last week by UCLA found that daily consumption of a certain spice, curcumin, improves memory and mood in individuals between 50-90 years of age.

So positive were these results that you may want to bring home leftovers from an evening dinner the next time you take in an Indian restaurant at Reno, Salt Lake or Twin Falls. Doing so just may give you a boost and help you later on in life by preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The initial direction for this investigation, it turns out, came from India itself.

In 2005 an epidemiological study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found a surprisingly lower prevalence of Alzheimer disease in the urban population of Kerala, India, in people 65 years or older who consumed curcumin curry on a daily basis. This early report also indicated better cognitive performance of those tested among other things, supporting the hypothesis that consuming the herb may provide humans with some kind of neuroprotective benefit.

Data taken in that city indicated only 34 people per 1,000 of that age group were judged as having some form of dementia. This is in stark contrast to an investigation completed in the United States, the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study (ADAMS), where the number rises to 140 people per thousand, of the same age bracket. Another group in Singapore one year later reported evidence of better memory performance in elderly Asians who also regularly added curry to their foods.

The University of California study, led by Dr. Gary Small, used a randomized, double-blind, two-group parallel design comparing a placebo to Theracurmin, a form of curcumin with increased intestinal endothelium penetrability. Standard curcumin is the principal yellow coloring matter of turmeric, an herb obtained from the ginger family Zingiberaceae.

Turmeric is usually sold as a supplement, cosmetics ingredient or food flavoring and is extensively used in making Indian curry. Organically the curcumin found in turmeric is considered a natural phenol because of an OH group bonded to a benzene ring and in some ways a close cousin to salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin.

Unfortunately, normal curcumin by itself suffers from chemical instability, water insolubility, and is poorly absorbed by the body even at high doses. Theracurmin, on the other hand, is a water-dispersible modified preparation that utilizes a colloidal dispersion technology to improve the curcumin’s overall adsorbtion into the blood stream. Online advertisements for Theracurmin claim human trials show an increase of up to 27 times more than standard curcumin extracts.

The subjects in the UCLA test agreed to participate for the 18 months and all were pre-screened for adequate visual and auditory acuity. Before beginning, each had electrocardiograms that did not show significant medical abnormalities that might interfere with the study. Subjects deemed to have an onset of Alzheimer disease or any other forms of beginning dementia or inability to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were excused.

The study included two standardized memory tests after six, 12 and 18 months of treatment. One test, the Buschke SRT, was used to gauge verbal learning. In this examination, 12 words are read quickly to the subject who is then immediately asked to recall as many words as possible. Another test, the Brief Visual Memory Test, was used to check a subject’s visual memory. This assessment, much like the children’s game of Memory, counts how well one can remember a distribution of geometric patterns printed on a page over a short span of time.

As listed by Dr. Small, the findings suggest that “daily oral ingestion of a bioavailable and safe form of curcumin improves memory performance over an 18-month period in middle-aged and older non-demented adults. Moreover, such daily oral curcumin consumption may lead to less neuropathological accumulation in the amygdale and hypothalamus,” the latter meaning that the possibility of Alzheimer disease may be mitigated by this treatment.

Volunteers taking Theracurmin “demonstrated significant memory improvement after 18 months as measured with scores (of the above listed tests) showing differences between curcumin and placebo groups with an effect size of 0.68.”

The paper says the researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study with a larger number of people. That study will also include some people with mild depression so the scientists can explore whether curcumin also has antidepressant effects. The larger sample also would allow them to analyze whether curcumin’s memory-enhancing effects vary according to people’s genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, their age or the extent of their cognitive problems.

My next order of aloo gobi will have extra turmeric!

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.