Of Spice, Spray, and Senility

By Maia Weinstock|Friday, March 01, 2002

The estimated 4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease may get help from two novel treatments: a nasal spray and an order of Indian food. Both seem to prevent the sticky accumulations of a brain protein that ultimately lead to nerve degeneration and memory loss.

A group led by Cynthia Lemere of Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston has developed a vaccine to stop the damaging protein, beta-amyloid, from piling up in the brain. The vaccine, when sprayed into the nose, instructs the immune system to produce antibodies that attach to the rogue proteins and neutralize them. When the researchers tested it on mice that had been genetically altered to simulate the onset of Alzheimer's, the rate of plaque formation plunged by 75 percent. "This might be a good way to treat patients before Alzheimer's symptoms appear or to stop the disease in its tracks for those in the early stages," Lemere says.

It may be years before a nasal vaccine passes through clinical trials, but another study points to a more immediate, and appetizing, potential therapy. Sally Frautschy of the University of California at Los Angeles found that diets rich in curcumin, a compound in the curry spice turmeric, reduced the accumulation of beta-amyloid protein in rat brains. Rats treated with curcumin also fared better in memory-dependent maze tests than did rats on normal diets. The finding may explain why in India, where foods are loaded with turmeric, just 1 percent of people over 65 contract Alzheimer's—the lowest incidence of the disease worldwide.

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