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Curcumin: Aging Brains and Cancer

March 2016

By Judy Stevens

Newly published data about curcumin continues to astonish scientists, physicians, and the lay public.

We’ve long known about curcumin’s many benefits, yet the news about this low-cost nutrient keeps growing stronger.

Curcumin, the active component of the spice turmeric, has a long history in Chinese and Indian medicine. Modern science has discovered that this ancient compound can drastically impact neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.1-5

While neurodegeneration and cancer may seem unrelated, they have multiple mechanisms in common. These include dysfunctional chemical signaling in the cells and abnormal gene regulation, as well as a vulnerability to chemical stresses and inflammation.

In a remarkable finding, researchers have discovered that when mice were supplemented with curcumin, they experienced a significant increase in formation of new neurons, particularly in the memory-critical hippocampal area of the brain.6,7

Numerous studies have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to prevent underlying processes involved in Alzheimer’s disease.8 Perhaps even more exciting are studies showing that it may significantly modify many of the processes involved in the development of Alzheimer’s.9-11

In addition, there is a growing body of literature documenting curcumin’s ability to treat and prevent cancer.12-14

These studies show not only the cancer prevention potential of curcumin, but also its ability to slow tumor growth when it occurs, and sensitize cancer cells to existing chemotherapy drugs.8,15-17

The importance of curcumin as a broad-spectrum shield against the impact of aging continues to be confirmed by the scientific community.

Table 1: Curcumin’s Anti-Alzheimer’s Mechanisms
Curcumin’s Anti-Alzheimer’s Mechanisms

Curcumin powerfully fights against the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that it directly binds to toxic beta amyloid proteins and prevents the formation of dangerous, inflammation-causing plaques. In addition, curcumin has been shown to have at least seven other mechanisms that minimize the formation of beta amyloid:

  • It binds to metal ions that induce oxidative stress in brain cells and promote beta amyloid development.43,44
  • It directly protects against oxidative damage, exceeding that of vitamin E, removing a major stimulus for beta amyloid formation.44,45
  • It lowers cholesterol, which has been shown to limit beta amyloid plaque formation.46,47
  • It reduces levels of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules (cytokines) that promote beta amyloid.25,48
  • It limits oxidation of crucial fats and proteins that trigger the main enzyme involved in beta amyloid formation.10,25,26
  • It promotes cleanup of existing beta amyloid deposits by brain macrophage cells.10
  • It induces stress-responsive heat-shock proteins that protect brain cells from beta amyloid toxicity.49

Curcumin and the Aging Brain

There are numerous factors that cause brains to age. These include the cumulative effects of oxidative stress, environmental toxins, inflammation, the buildup of toxic proteins, the loss of energy-generating power, and gradual damage to vital genes in individual cells.9,18,19

Animal experiments show that curcumin can help protect against these factors in the aging brain. For example, studies demonstrate curcumin’s ability to improve the management of cellular energy and to enhance cellular free radical protection systems. The result is reduced fat oxidation and decreased accumulation of toxic molecules that contribute to premature brain cell death.20

In addition, much of curcumin’s value in the aging brain may relate to its ability to turn on genes that trigger the emergence of new brain cells.10 This exciting discovery was demonstrated in a study of adult mice. When supplemented with curcumin, the mice experienced a significant increase in new neuron formation, particularly in the memory-critical hippocampal area of the brain.6

Evidence is also rapidly accumulating that curcumin plays a major role in protecting existing brain cells from the slow degradation that occurs in disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.10

As an added benefit, curcumin appears capable of minimizing the impact of acute catastrophes such as stroke and head trauma and chronic toxicity from alcohol.10

Let’s look more in depth at each of these brain-protective benefits.

What You Need to Know
Curcumin BattlesNeurodegeneration and Cancer

Curcumin Battles Neurodegeneration and Cancer

  • Chemical stresses and disrupted biological signaling pathways are common to most symptoms of aging. These disruptions are especially prominent in the development of age-related brain degeneration, stroke, and other threats to our cognitive health, and also in the development of cancer.
  • Curcumin, the primary constituent of turmeric, is an age-old spice used to combat many chronic disorders, which today are recognized as related to these disrupted pathways.
  • Studies now reveal at least eight mechanisms by which curcumin can prevent or slow neurodegenerative diseases, stroke risk, and even damage induced by head trauma and alcohol abuse.
  • Similarly, curcumin acts to oppose at least seven basic pathways leading to cancer development.
  • Studies in the lab and on live animals demonstrate that curcumin leads to sharp reductions in the occurrence and severity of neurodegenerative disorders and of malignant growths.
  • Those interested in opposing fundamental aging processes should take special notice of curcumin’s remarkable, multitargeted mechanisms capable of slowing and perhaps reversing cognitive decline and cancer risk.

Alzheimer’s Disease

In the search for a treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s disease, curcumin has emerged as a leading adjuvant contender. What this means is that curcumin may be one critical part of lifestyle changes, hormone modulation, and a nutrient cocktail that may reverse what the mainstream today considers incurable. More about how to reverse memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease will appear in the April 2016 edition of Life Extension® magazine.

Numerous studies have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to prevent the underlying processes involved in the disease. Perhaps even more exciting are studies showing that it may help modify some of these processes.9-11

These discoveries couldn’t have come at a better time. Alzheimer’s disease is currently the leading cause of dementia in older people, and the risk for developing it doubles with every five years we live past age 65.21,22 Over 5 million Americans aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease and it is expected to affect a staggering 13.8 million people by 2050.23

If there is any good news in all these statistics, it is the tremendous potential impact of prevention. Studies suggest that by simply delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by an average of two years, we could prevent at least 2 million new cases in people over the age of 50.21

That’s where curcumin comes in.

The reason curcumin is considered a critical component in the battle against Alzheimer’s is because it interferes with one of the root causes of Alzheimer’s itself: the formation and toxicity of the misfolded, abnormal protein called beta amyloid.10 When these protein pieces clump together, they form dangerous plaques that promote inflammation and contribute directly to brain cell death. This results in the loss of function, memory, and, eventually, one’s self.

Basic laboratory studies show that curcumin has tremendous potential to prevent the formation of amyloid plaques. In a remarkable study, scientists found that even at minute concentrations, curcumin has the ability to bind to beta amyloid, preventing it from accumulating into plaques.10

Studies show that curcumin easily enters the brains of living animals and inhibits formation of toxic beta amyloid plaques.24

Animal models of Alzheimer’s disease have confirmed these results. Several studies have demonstrated that curcumin reduces the accumulation of beta amyloid and the dangerous inflammatory plaques that it forms.25,26 In addition, curcumin has been found to sharply reduce markers of oxidative damage and inflammation in the brain. And more importantly, when rats with Alzheimer’s disease are supplemented with curcumin, they have shown improvement in cognitive losses (such as memory and learning).26

This next study is especially encouraging for those already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the study found that curcumin suppressed beta amyloid and plaque formation in the brain, even when treatment was started after accumulations had reached levels similar to those of human patients.24 This makes curcumin a key nutrient with ability to reduce beta amyloid deposits.10

In addition to directly binding to toxic beta amyloid and preventing plaque formation, curcumin has been shown to have at least seven other mechanisms that minimize the formation of beta amyloid. (These are outlined in Table 1.) All eight of these mechanisms are likely to be at work in an experiment in which specialized microscopy was used to study beta amyloid plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s. This study demonstrated that curcumin enters the brain and then binds specifically to plaques, reducing their size by up to 30%.9

Unfortunately, most of us have already reached an age at which some beta amyloid has already formed in the brain, raising the risk for Alzheimer’s long before symptoms appear. This makes curcumin supplementation especially valuable, since it not only prevents plaque formation, but also reduces the toxicity of existing plaques. It does this by suppressing the pro-oxidant, pro-inflammatory, and gene-altering toxicity of beta amyloid in the brain.10

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is another common neuro-degenerative condition. It is sometimes referred to as a “movement disorder.” As the disease progresses, cells in the brain regions involved in control of motor muscles begin to die off, leaving victims slow moving and off balance.27

Eventually, these symptoms can progress to include a nearly frozen state of hesitation in walking and a so-called “mask-like” expression. In many cases, Parkinson’s symptoms progress to include dementia, producing cognitive losses similar to those in Alzheimer’s.28

Currently, it is estimated that at least 1 million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, with about 60,000 new diagnoses annually. Men are 1.5 times as likely to develop Parkinson’s.27

Curcumin fights many of the underlying processes involved in the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when dopamine-producing cells die in the region of the brain that controls movement (the substantia nigra). Oxidative damage contributes to the death of neurons in the substantia nigra.10,29 Curcumin’s powerful radical-scavenging properties and natural inhibition of inflammation make it a natural candidate for slowing these reactions. Indeed, it has been shown to provide significant neuroprotection and prevent chemical-induced changes in animal models.30-32

Curcumin also protects and supports the function of mitochondria, the intracellular “power plants” that release energy. When a potent mitochondrial toxin was applied to brain cells in culture, curcumin treatment protected the cells and prevented their death.30

Finally, as with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s is associated with accumulations of a toxic protein. Known as alpha-synuclein, this protein damages mitochondrial function and adds to neuronal oxidative stress levels. Alpha-synuclein also triggers inflammatory changes that contribute to cell death, which produces Parkinson’s symptoms.33

Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties are thought to be involved in protecting brain cells from premature death.10 Lab studies show that when curcumin is applied to brain cells in culture, it prevents alpha-synuclein from binding together, resulting in formation of fewer toxic plaques. 33,34

Strokes and Cerebrovascular Diseases

Strokes and cerebrovascular diseases are major causes of death and disability. Fortunately, curcumin has multiple mechanisms of action that are beneficial against strokes such as suppressing inflammation while minimizing oxidative damage.

One study showed that curcumin treatment in rodents before and even up to 24 hours after induction of brain ischemia (loss of blood flow) reduced damage to vulnerable portions of the brain, preserved brain free radical defense systems, and mitigated behavioral changes induced by the stroke.35

Additional Neuroprotective Effects

Additional Neuroprotective Effects  

Curcumin has been shown to protect brain tissue against the effects of acute head injury. Head trauma produces a sudden rush of oxidative stress and early inflammatory changes in the brain, and has also been shown to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.10,36 Curcumin can combat these damaging effects.

One study found that when rats were supplemented with curcumin prior to an injury, they had sharply lower levels of oxidative stress damage and other markers of brain injury. Importantly, this resulted in less cognitive impairment as a result of the trauma.37

Curcumin can also help protect against the long-term brain damage associated with chronic alcohol abuse. This type of damage occurs as a result of oxidative stress, peroxidation of fats in brain cell membranes, inflammation, and other mechanisms common to neurodegenerative diseases, strokes, and head injury.10 Curcumin is well known to oppose those effects in the liver. Studies also show protective properties of curcumin against alcohol-induced brain degeneration in live animal models.10,38

Curcumin and Cancer

Curcumin has at least seven mechanisms by which it fights cancer from its earliest stages of development. These are outlined in Table 2 on the next page.

This type of multilayered protection is essential in fighting cancer because cancer is a highly multifactorial process. As shown in Table 2, curcumin has been found to attenuate all stages of tumor progression. This makes it one of the most powerful natural compounds in the fight to prevent cancer, to slow its growth when it occurs, and even to sensitize cancer cells to existing chemotherapy drugs. 8,15-17

A growing body of literature is documenting curcumin’s ability to treat and prevent cancer, especially in advanced animal models of malignancy. Here are some of the highlights.

Curcumin Combats Tumors

Studies have shown curcumin’s ability to battle three of the most common and deadly tumors: lung, colon, and prostate cancers.

In the first study, curcumin supplementation was supplied to strains of mice injected with cells from human non-small cell lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related death. Compared with mice fed a control diet, supplemented mice demonstrated a significant 36% reduction in the size of the lung tumors. In addition, their chances of survival increased nearly 3-fold.13

In the second study, curcumin supplementation significantly reduced by 40% the number of colon tumors in mice fed a high-protein diet, a known risk factor for colon cancer. The decrease in tumors was accompanied by significant drops in markers of inflammation (a known promoter of cancer growth) and by slowed proliferation rates of colon cells. These actions are likely the reason for the reduction in tumors.12

In a mouse model of colon cancer, curcumin supplementation completely eliminated tumors, increased survival, and demonstrated microscopic improvements in the animals’ colons.8

Finally, in mice bearing human prostate cancers, 30 days of curcumin supplementation significantly reduced the tumor volume and weight by inhibiting cancer cell growth. The mechanisms appeared related to curcumin’s up-regulation of genes that inhibit tumors, and down-regulation of genes that promote tumors.14

Curcumin Slows Progression of Fast-Growing Cancers

A rapidly growing and poorly differentiated (higher grade) cancer can be distinguished by its high rate of new blood vessel formation (angiogenesis). Curcumin has been shown to significantly slow the growth of these dangerous tumors by reducing the numbers of new blood vessels they form.39

Curcumin has also been found to slow the growth of prostate cancer. In mice bearing human prostate cancers injected under their skin, curcumin supplementation significantly inhibited initial tumor growth by 27%, compared with unsupplemented controls.

There were two reasons for this. First, the animals treated with curcumin had significant reductions in their expression of androgen receptors. Those receptors, when stimulated by testosterone and other male hormones, promote tumor growth. Second, supplemented animals had a 2-fold increase in the time it took for their levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA, a marker of tumor progression) to double. This is a further indication of the deceleration of cancer development.40

Table 2: Curcumin and Cancer-Prevention Mechanisms
Curcumin and Cancer-Prevention Mechanisms

Cancer-Inducing or Cancer-Promoting Mechanism

Curcumin’s Preventive Properties

DNA damage to genes regulating cell replication50

  • Prevents DNA damage by toxins, radiation, and other environmental factors51-53

Loss of normal growth control leads to out-of-control reproduction of malignant cells54,55

  • Restores normal growth controls, reducing viability and replication rate of malignant cells15,56-59
  • Blocks cancer cells’ access to growth factors needed for continued replication57,60,61
  • Switches off genes promoting cancer development, switches on those that prevent rampant growth62
  • Restores ability to die by apoptosis (programmed cell death)58
  • Restores cell cycle checkpoints, trapping malignant cells at one phase in replicative cycle and preventing further growth59

Evasion of normal immune system surveillance to find and destroy malignant cells17

  • Reveals cancer cells to immune surveillance, improving detection and destruction of malignant cells17

Induction of new aberrant blood vessels to fuel tumor growth63

  • Inhibits new blood vessel growth by blocking vascular growth factors39

Overproduction of “protein-melting” enzymes allows cancer cells to penetrate tissue to invade local sites64

  • Inhibits local invasion by blocking protein-melting enzyme actions,65 and by interfering with cancer-associated fibroblasts, the cells that assist malignant growth66

Persistence of cancer stem cells resistant to chemotherapy and radiation, allowing treated tumors to regrow16,59,67

  • Reduces cancer stem cell survival and sensitizes them to chemotherapy, making tumors more vulnerable to existing treatments16,59,67

Seeding of new distant tumors (metastases) from original mass promoted by specialized adhesion molecules allows malignant tissue to stick to vessel walls and set up new tumor68

  • Reduces production of adhesion molecules used to stick to vessel walls69
  • Speeds up cancer cells that roll along vessel walls, reducing ability to settle and form mature metastases69

Curcumin Reduces Cancer-Promoting Conditions

Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach lining that has been linked to stomach and esophageal cancers. A common cause is infection by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria.41

One study found that when mice infected with Helicobacter pylori were treated with curcumin, it resulted in a complete absence of inflammation. This is critical because preventing H. Pylori-induced inflammation is an important step in preventing these types of cancers.42

As an added benefit, curcumin supplementation enhances bacterial richness and diversity in the colon, a key to maintaining good digestive health. Studies in mice show that curcumin supplementation shifts the abnormal profile of organisms in colon cancer-bearing mice back towards that of healthy mice. 8

Summary

Neurodegenerative diseases and cancer may seem unrelated. In reality, they are deeply connected at the cellular and molecular levels. Both processes involve inappropriate or abnormal responses to normal biochemical signaling pathways, resulting in loss of cellular function.

In neurodegenerative diseases, strokes, and other problems in the aging brain, such loss of control leads to cell death and results in cognitive decline. In cancer, that loss of control leads to just the opposite: unregulated cell growth and replication.

Curcumin, derived from the spice turmeric, has a long history as a powerful protectant against disorders we now recognize as being driven by this kind of loss of cellular regulation.

Modern studies reveal that curcumin can directly oppose at least eight of the fundamental causes of age-related brain degeneration. This has led to promising progress in the fight against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, stroke, head trauma, and even alcohol abuse.

At the same time, studies show curcumin can reverse at least seven known cancer-promoting processes, leading to remarkable cancer-preventive properties.

All of this evidence suggests that curcumin is a versatile anti-aging compound.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.

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