Curry Power: Turmeric Compound Boosts Growth of Brain's Stem Cells

Turmeric (shown here drying in the sun) is a commonly used spice that researchers say could hold the secret to brain cell regrowth. Reuters

Scientists have found that a chemical component of the spice turmeric—commonly used in Indian cuisine and curries—increases the regeneration of new neurons in cell cultures and in lab rats.

As with other organs, the brain has a pretty impressive ability to repair itself (within reason), and neural stem cells offer one avenue to healing. These special cells are present in several brain regions and can turn into neurons and two other types of neural cells when they are stimulated to do so, for example after head trauma.

In a study published today in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy, scientists discovered that when they put neural stems cells in petri dishes, and bathed them in extracts of a chemical found in turmeric, up to 80 percent more of the stem cells grew into neurons or others cells, compared to control experiments where the chemical wasn't used.

When the researchers injected the turmeric extract into a part of the rat brain where these cells are located, they detected similar increased growth and proliferation of stem cells into neurons, says study co-author Dr. Adele Rüger, a researcher at the University Hospital of Cologne, Germany, and the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine.

It's promising to find a chemical that appears to stimulate these neural stem cells (NSC) to become neurons, says Dr. Andreas Androutsellis-Theotokis, at the Dresden University of Technology, who wasn't involved in the study.

In previous studies, researchers have shown that "boosting NSC numbers contributes to better regeneration after [for example] stroke in experimental animals," says Rüger.

However, as is often the case, the scientists don't know if this chemical, known as ar-turmerone, would have the same effect in humans, Dr. Androutsellis-Theotokis says. The researchers did, after all, inject high concentrations of the substance directly into rat brains.

But if it did have similar effects in humans, and could make it into the brain in high enough concentrations, it could possibly be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, the study suggests.

Interestingly, other components in turmeric have been shown to have similar effects like stimulating neuron growth and reducing inflammation in animal brains, says Dr. Rüger. The same caveats apply though, when trying to compare effects in animals to humans.

"In the meanwhile, of course, eating turmeric in reasonable amounts won't hurt, since side effects are not apparent," Rüger says.

But Dr. Androutsellis-Theotokis cautions "against binging on hot food until responsible, controlled research elucidates this interesting aspect of the spice."