A spice in your pantry may hold the key to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease prevention, according to recent studies by Mahesh Narayan, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Narayan is researching the molecular capabilities of components within turmeric (a common spice used in Indian cooking), almond oil, neem, and the El Paso-area creosote bush, and their abilities to prevent the sporadic onset of neurodegenerative diseases, as opposed to disease onset linked to genetics.
“In epidemiology studies in the Indian subcontinent, it was noticed that the people there presented one sixth the rate of Alzheimer’s disease of those in the U.S.,” he said. “This seems to suggest that there is something in the diet that might prevent the disease.”
Since then, Narayan has been studying curcumin, a polyphenol within turmeric, and has widened the scope of his research by looking at other substances that are structurally similar, including masoprocol – found within the local creosote bush – and ellagic acid within almond oil.
Experiments show that curcumin has the ability to intervene in processes that can stop proteins from folding correctly – the cause of neurodegenerative disease onset – and reduces the incidence of a key Parkinsonian biomarker in cell lines. He anticipates masoprocol and ellagic acid will demonstrate similar results; and perhaps the very same polyphenols will intervene in the accumulation of Alzheimer’s biomarkers.
“While protein folding is of fundamental importance, it is protein misfolding that is responsible for several diseases, including the onset of neurodegeneration,” Narayan said. “Polyphenols scavenge free radicals that cause misfolding, and allow the protein to fold properly rather than permanently disfiguring it. By having polyphenols within our cells, we hope to prevent misfolding. This approach is tantalizing simply because prevention is always better than a cure.”
Narayan is currently collaborating with Manuel Miranda-Arango, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences, and Edward Castañeda, Ph.D., chair and professor of psychology, to translate his findings into an animal model and evaluate the efficiency of the polyphenols in restoring behavioral and biochemical deficits associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The professor’s ultimate goal is to collaborate with food manufacturers and have curcumin, or other neuroprotectants, laced in potato chips or milk to “innocuously inoculate” the public from the sporadic onset of the neurodegenerative diseases.
“We could say, ‘This is an anti-Alzheimer’s potato chip!’” he said. “You’ll pay a little bit more, but in the long run, you can remember your grandkid’s name.”
Narayan received a doctoral degree from The University of Ohio in protein biophysics. He completed postdoctoral research focusing on protein folding at Cornell University.
Studies are supported by funding from the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Foundation.