I have been reading more about food and the brain lately. I just read a review article by Kannappan and colleagues (Molecular Neurobiology 2011) from the University of Texas called “Neuroprotection by Spice-derived Nutraceuticals: You are What You Eat”. The term ‘nutraceutical’ is a coined term from the words ‘nutrition’ and ‘pharmaceutical’. There is some debate as to what a nutraceutical is, but Health Canada defines it as “a product isolated or purified from foods that is generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with food. A nutraceutical is demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease.”

Kannappan and group describe research supporting the concept that compounds derived from spices, particularly Asian spices (turmeric, ginger, clove, ginseng, cinnamon etc), are involved in moderating inflammatory molecules in the body’s circulation and providing protection to the brain . They discuss the finding that many chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s are not as prevalent in Asian countries where the population commonly uses these spices. Although we know that neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis etc) likely have multiple causes, the idea is interesting. Most of the studies cited are in animal models of these diseases with a focus on the spice turmeric (curcumin). There are very few studies that examine the effects of spice-derived nutraceuticals in humans so I am cautious in recommending spice-derived nutraceuticals as treatment for disease. However, the authors present many studies that show that curcumin is neuroprotective (see note below) by suppressing oxidative damage to cells, preventing development of brain plaques associated with dementia, blocking damaging inflammatory processes and reducing cell death.

Note: Neuroprotection is a concept in neuroscience research in which it is thought that some factor or factors like drug compounds, health and lifestyle behaviours or genetics can somehow protect neurons in the brain and spinal cord from damage caused by diseases, injury or toxins. Neuroprotection is likely provided in two ways:

  1. The drug or intervention is an antioxidant that reduces cellular oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a natural response of cells in which the demands on cell metabolism outweigh the cell’s ability to function and rid itself of waste resulting in excessive production of free radicals and cell injury or death. Antioxidants work to block the effects of these free radicals.
  2. The drug or intervention is an anti-inflammatory that interferes with the body’s production of inflammatory products that are toxic to cells.