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Curcumin shows promise for treating Gulf War illness

Texas A&M and Central Texas Veterans Health Care System researchers find component of turmeric effective in treating Gulf War illness symptoms

Turmeric, a spice commonly found in curry, has long been touted for its health benefits. Now, evidence in animal models suggests that one of its components, called curcumin, may be able to reverse some of the effects of Gulf War illness (GWI), according to recent research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. This research was funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.

Nearly 200,000 veterans of the First Gulf War came home with symptoms of GWI: cognitive and memory problems, mood dysfunction, sleep disorders, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and hypersensitive skin. It is now thought that these are a result of the chemicals such as pesticides and a nerve gas prophylaxis drug the troops were exposed to while deployed combined with combat-related stress.

“More than 25 years later, many veterans are still affected by GWI,” said Ashok K. Shetty, PhD, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, associate director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, research career scientist at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center, Central Texas Veterans Health Care System and senior author of the paper. “That’s why we’ve been working hard to find new approaches to treat the condition.”

Shetty previously established an animal model of Gulf War illness, which allowed him to test the effect of different compounds. Because GWI is thought to be primarily a condition associated with chronic inflammation and increased oxidative stress, he and his team decided to try curcumin, a known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

“We were very encouraged by the results,” Shetty said. “We found the individuals with GWI treated with curcumin for 30 days showed better cognitive function and mood than the control group did.”

These improvements were more than just functional. “Curcumin treatment helped in alleviating the brain inflammation seen in GWI,” said Maheedhar Kodali, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and the first author of this study. “It also enhanced the expression of genes that encode for antioxidants and normalized the expression of genes related to the function of mitochondria in the hippocampus.”

“Particularly, the ability of curcumin to reduce the occurrence of activated microglia, a sign of eased brain inflammation, is remarkable,” Shetty added.

The compound also seemed to enhance the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory and mood and the region where new neurons are added throughout life in normal individuals. “This study showed that curcumin can mediate anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neurogenic and cognitive and mood enhancing effects in a condition such as GWI,” said Shetty. This corresponds well with the findings of a separate study in humans from the University of California Los Angeles, which recently showed curcumin improved the cognitive function of older adults by 28 percent.

Curcumin supplementation is generally considered safe for adults, with gastrointestinal upset being the most common side effect. Still, as with any supplement, people shouldn’t begin taking it without consulting with their health care providers.

The next step for Shetty and his team is to test whether curcumin has similarly beneficial effects when administered significantly after the onset of GWI, instead of immediately after, as was done in this study. This would better simulate the time lag between now and when the veterans were exposed during the First Gulf War. Eventually, Shetty plans to move toward testing the compound in clinical trials of veterans with GWI. “We were excited to see the benefits of curcumin in treating or preventing the effects of Gulf War illness,” he said. “We hope this work will help to improve the lives of so many of the men and women who served our country.”

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