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Spice that could prevent Alzheimer's disease is probably in your kitchen

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Common spice shows promise for Alzheimer's prevention.

Researchers say compounds in a common kitchen spice have potential for preventing Alzheimer's disease and delaying its onset. The spice that is being studied for Alzheimer's prevention is cinnamon. One of the compounds in the sweet spice that is good for brain health is also found in other foods that you may already be enjoying on a regular basis.

Finding natural ways to maintain optimal health and prevent disease is important. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and no proven way to prevent the disease that is thought to occur from a combination of genes, environmental and lifestyle factors. A more recent finding also links the disease to sleep apnea that affects millions of Americans.

The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, Roshni George and Donald Graves, scientists at University of California Santa Barbara, found two compounds in cinnamon can stop the characteristic ‘tangles’ that occur in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

The two compounds, cinnamaldehyde that gives the spice its sweet smell and epicatechin stop the tau protein in the brain from clumping together as happens with Alzheimer’s disease, thus keeping brain cells or neurons from becoming tangled.

George explained in a press release, "The problem with tau in Alzheimer's is that it starts aggregating.” The result is that insoluble fibers form in the neurons.

Aging makes us more susceptible to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Patients who have the disease form insoluble fibers more often and in larger amounts, George said.

The cinnamon compound cinnamaldehyde acts to reduce oxidative stress, thus preventing tau knots by preventing clumping of the proteins.

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Specifically the oil cinnamaldehyde binds to two residues in the amino acid cysteine found in the tau protein.

"Take, for example, sunburn, a form of oxidative damage," said Graves. "If you wore a hat, you could protect your face and head from the oxidation. In a sense this cinnamaldehyde is like a cap." While it can protect the tau protein by binding to its vulnerable cysteine residues, it can also come off, Graves added, which can ensure the proper functioning of the protein.”

Epicatechin that is also found in blueberries, tea and red wine protects the brain from Alzheimer’s disease in a similar fashion.

The researchers explain epicatechin that is also present in chocolate is activated by oxidation from free-radicals, which allows the cinnamon compound to interact with the cysteines on the tau protein.

Another action of epicatechin is that it isolates other reactive such as Acrolein - a reactive aldehyde that humans are exposed to from the environment and from foods. Acrolein can damage tau protein.

Type 2 diabetes that is also linked to higher chance of Alzheimer’s disease from oxidative stress might also be prevented with the cinnamon compounds.

Graves says there is still much to learn about how cinnamon could prevent Alzheimer’s disease and potentially delay its onset with the inevitability of aging. Because cinnamon can be toxic in high doses, the researchers advise consuming only the amounts you would normally use in cooking.

Cinnamon compounds might end up sparing Baby Boomers from the disease that is expected to cost $203 billion this year alone, according to the findings. Graves notes it would be “interesting” if a small compound in cinnamon could help thwart Alzheimer’s disease.