In Summary

  • This article featured in Swinburne’s new ‘Research Impact’ magazine, produced in association with Nature Publishing Group. 

A compound in a popular spice used to make curries can improve brain function, a Swinburne University of Technology study has found. 

While the brain is a hungry engine, greedy for glucose and oxygen delivered through a rich blood supply, it is also vulnerable to stress from inflammation or blood flow reduction. 

However, past studies have observed that older people living in cultures where curry is a staple have a lower prevalence of dementia and better cognitive function. A likely cause was identified as a compound found in turmeric: curcumin. 

Professor Andrew Scholey, director of Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, has been researching the effects of herbs, spices and extracts on the human brain for the last two decades. 

“Curcumin has multiple physiological effects,” says Scholey. “It’s known to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow. It influences multiple processes that nudge brain function in a positive direction.” 

Scholey and a PhD student, Kate Cox, conducted a study, funded by Verdure Sciences, which confirmed the positive effects of curcumin on the brains of healthy 60–85 year olds. 

Compared with subjects taking a placebo, those taking the curcumin compound — more readily absorbed than pure curcumin — had significantly improved attention spans and working memory within an hour of taking the supplement. Use over four weeks also improved general energy, calmness, contentedness and stress levels. 

The results are already available to the community and were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in mid-2015. The curcumin compound is now licensed in Australia by Blackmores. 

Last year, the project was recognised as University Research of the Year in the inaugural NutraIngredients Awards. 

The Centre for Human Psychopharmacology is conducting a further curcumin study, looking at neuroimaging and genetic markers to better understand curcumin’s potential psychological and cognitive benefits. 

The centre, which boasts a worldclass facility, was set up specifically for clinical research. 

Other projects includes an investigation of the effect of diet on the generation of new cells in the hippocampus — the region of the brain responsible for memory — and the impact of a Mediterranean diet and mild exercise on cognitive function for people in retirement homes. 

“The main things older people fear about ageing are the loss of energy and the loss of mental function,” says Scholey. Research undertaken by Swinburne and its partners will help to address those fears.