Compound In Curry Spice Boosts Stem Cell Growth In Rat Brains

Anant Nath Sharma, '142/365. Turmeric City.' via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A major compound in the commonly used spice turmeric boosts the growth of brain stem cells in both cell culture and rodents, a new study has found. While it is currently far too early to tell whether these results would translate to humans, the researchers suggest that this compound could be a promising candidate to promote brain cell regeneration in certain neurological disorders. The study has been published in the open access journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy.

The herb Curcuma longa, or turmeric, contains two major bioactive compounds: curcumin and aromatic (ar-) turmerone. The former has been found to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties in various studies; in fact, over 1,700 papers on curcumin have been published in the last 50 years. It can also cross our brain’s protective shield, the blood-brain barrier, and play neuroprotective roles in certain neurological disorders. Furthermore, several lines of evidence have suggested it could be useful in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Ar-turmerone, on the other hand, has been largely neglected by scientists. However, some studies have hinted that it may have anti-inflammatory properties and may help to block the activity of inflammatory brain cells, which are called microglia. Since the activation of these cells is associated with various neurodegenerative diseases and strokes, researchers are keen to probe its potential usefulness as a therapeutic agent.

To find out more, a team of researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Jülich, Germany, investigated the effects of ar-turmerone on neural stem cells (NSCs). These cells self-renew and give rise to several types of brain cells including neurons and the star-shaped astrocytes. These cells have some ability to regenerate brain cells after injury, but whether this is sufficient to repair damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s remains contentious.

For the study, the team first exposed rat NSCs in a dish to six different concentrations of ar-turmerone for 72 hours. They found that it increased cell proliferation in a dose-dependent manner, i.e. the more ar-turmerone that was added, the more the cells divided. Certain concentrations even boosted proliferation by up to 80% when compared with control cells.

Next, the researchers injected the compound directly into the brains of adult rats and analyzed the subsequent activity of NSCs by positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. Once again, the extracts increased the growth and development of NSCs into different cell types when compared with control mice.

According to lead researcher Maria Reuger, these results could indicate that ar-turmerone may be able to boost the effectiveness of stem cells, which could in turn boost brain repair. However, it’s far too early to tell at this stage whether these results translate to people. Furthermore, this study did not investigate whether this enhanced stem cell proliferation and development would make meaningful differences in rats with neurodegenerative diseases. So please do not take these results to mean “A curry a day keeps Alzheimer’s away,” as the Daily Mail would have you believe. Furthermore, as the NHS points out, it is well-recognized that boosting stem cell growth carries some risk of tumor development.

While these results may indicate that ar-turmerone could constitute a promising therapeutic candidate for certain neurologic disorders, further studies are needed to support this. 

[Via BMC, Stem Cell Research & Therapy, NHS and BBC News]

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