Brain and Body

The Spice in Curry Can Improve Memory and Energy Levels in Old Age, Study Finds

April 25, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Saffron spices

It also helped with attention, calmness, and contentedness.

The main spice found in curry may do a lot more for us than add a kick to our meals.

According to research at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, the bright yellow compound found in the spice turmeric, called curcumin, appears to help us stay mentally sharp in old age by effectively improving memory and attention span in the elderly.

Past studies have found that older people living in cultures where curry is a staple have better cognitive function and a lower prevalence of dementia, and curcumin was identified as a likely reason for this.

In fact, a German study found that curcumin can act as part of the brain’s repair kit by stimulating the growth of nerve cells. Further, another study published in the National Center for Biotechnology found that curcumin can actually encourage the birth of new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, a brain region that regulates learning, memory, and mood.

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In the new study, the Australian researchers recruited 60 volunteers aged between 60 and 85 in order to explore how curcumin has its effects on cognition. The volunteers were split into two groups — one was given capsules with a lipid curcumin formulation, and the other was given a placebo.

A few hours after taking the curcumin pill or the placebo, the participants were asked to complete various computerized mental tasks — word and picture recall, simple subtraction, and reaction time tasks. Following this initial experiment, the volunteers took the curcumin supplement daily for four weeks.

"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 report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

At the end of the four-week trial, the participants who had taken the curcumin capsules performed better overall at the memory and vigilance tasks. Plus, they reported feeling a boost of energy levels as well as lower stress and improved calmness and contentedness.

"Curcumin has multiple physiological effects," lead researcher Andrew Scholey, director of the University’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, said in a press release. "It’s known to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow. It influences multiple processes that nudge brain function in a positive direction."

Scholey says, “The main things older people fear about ageing are the loss of energy and the loss of mental function,” so the researchers plan to conduct further research to address those fears.

Next, researchers at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology plan to look into neuroimaging and genetic markers to better understand the potential psychological and cognitive benefits packed in curcumin.

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