Turmeric is a main spice in curry — it’s a yellow-colored, bitter-tasting ginger root that can also be quite medicinal. Turmeric has been used to treat arthritis, heartburn, stomach issues, and diarrhea, among other things throughout human history — but now researchers have found a new potential outlet for the root in treating disorders involving fear memories, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a new study led by Glenne Schafe, a professor of psychology at Hunter College, researchers found that curcumin — the principal compound found in turmeric — impaired the formation of fear memories in the brain after a traumatic experience.
“We showed that rats freely fed a diet enriched with curcumin have impaired encoding of fear memories,” Schafe said in the press release. “We also showed that rats with a pre-existing fear memory can lose that memory when it is recalled while they are eating a curcumin-enriched diet.”
Curcumin has been examined in the past for its potential health benefits, such as its efficacy in treating multiple myeloma, pancreatic cancer, myelodysplastic syndromes, colon cancer, psoriasis, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression. A recent study, meanwhile, found that curcumin also proved able in fighting mesothelioma — a rare form of cancer that attacks the cells of the mesothelium, a protective lining around organs — when combined with other anti-cancer peptide molecules. In addition, researchers have examined curcumin’s effect on Alzheimer’s disease: A 2008 study claimed that “due to various effects of curcumin, such as decreased beta-amyloid plaques, delayed degradation of neurons, metal-chelation, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and decreased microglia formation, the overall memory in patients with [Alzheimer’s disease] has improved.”
But if curcumin truly has a beneficial effect on people suffering from PTSD or other psychological disorders, that brings the spice to a whole new level. The authors of the most recent study discovered that fear memories impaired by curcumin appeared to remain compromised for a long period of time — preventing them from “reconsolidating” or reappearing again. Of course, more research will be needed in order to solidify the evidence.
“Curcumin, a yellow-pigment compound found in the popular Indian spice turmeric (Curcuma longa), has been extensively investigated for its anti-inflammatory, chemopreventative and antidepressant properties,” the authors write in the Abstract. “Here, we examined the efficacy of dietary curcumin at impairing the consolidation and reconsolidation of a Pavlovian fear memory, a widely studied animal model of traumatic memory formation in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
The authors conclude that the findings may have “important clinical implications for the treatment of disorders such as PTSD that are characterized by unusually strong and persistently reactivated fear memories.”