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Alzheimer’s researchers stalk saffron for a remedy

Alzheimer’s researchers stalk saffron for a remedy

Saffron extract shows promise in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms by clearing amyloid-beta clusters from the brain.
Saffron and Alzheimers
Representative Image | Shutterstock

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia or memory loss, occurring in people over the age of 65. Although some exceptions exist, advancing age is the topmost risk factor for Alzheimer’s.  

People with Alzheimer’s face irreversible memory loss and an inability to execute daily tasks or think and learn new skills. The disease also affects their behaviour: they become impulsive, disoriented, and unpredictable, which increases in severity over the years. 

The person’s condition progressively deteriorates as the damage is caused to neurons in the brain, which begin to degenerate. The nerve damage happens because proteins called amyloid-beta and tau accumulate in the brain tissue affecting communication among nerve cells. Research has also found other reasons that could lead to Alzheimer’s. 

Currently, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s; therefore, early diagnosis is the best bet to slow the progression of the disease. A few prescribed medications help to minimise the symptoms caused by disrupted neurotransmitter activities. (Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that enable nerve cell communication). In a recent breakthrough, A drug named lecanemab developed by Japanese firm Eisai and US biotech firm Biogen showed slowing down the progression of the disease in a clinical trial. 

Plant-based drug compounds 

However, medications are not without side effects. In the past couple of decades, researchers have also started looking for bioactive compounds in plant extracts as a therapeutic approach to Alzheimer’s. A few studies have found that active compounds in saffron, turmeric, and Indian gooseberry have the potential to reduce the amyloid-beta clusters. In addition, saffron is known to be a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. 

In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers administered saffron capsules for 12 months to a small group of 17 people who had Alzheimer’s. They found that the group showed improvement in cognitive abilities with minor side effects. 

In another research study published in ACS Omega, researchers from the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu (IIIM-Jammu), delved into the potential of saffron compounds. They found that the stigma of the saffron flower contains a chemical compound called crocin which has 16 active anti-Alzheimer’s chemicals. 

The team evaluated the efficacy of the Saffron extract and its constituent ‘Crocin’ in clearing amyloid-beta plaques in lab experiments and on mice. 

Dr Sandeep B. Bharate, senior principal scientist, IIIM-Jammu, tells Happiest Health, “Crocins are major constituents of saffron that functions as prodrugs. When saffron or its extract is consumed orally, crocins present in the saffron gets converted into crocetin in the gastrointestinal tract. Crocetin permeates through membranes, reaches the blood circulation and from there, it crosses the blood-brain barrier to reach inside the brain to show anti-Alzheimer’s activity.”  The blood-brain barrier is a semipermeable protective layer of the brain. 

He explains that crocetin clears the amyloid cluster in the brain in two ways. “First, crocetin initiates autophagy (cell’s self-clearance mechanism of toxins) in the brain. Second, it increases the activity of a transporter protein called PgP, located at the blood-brain barrier, which flushes out the amyloid-beta from the brain to the blood circulation for clearance.” In our pre-clinical studies, the saffron extract has improved the memory and learning abilities in the animals. He adds that the saffron extract and the extracted compound did not show any adverse effects during the experiments. 

Another study found that crocetin could invade the blood-brain barrier in lab experiments.  

What Ayurveda says 

In India, saffron or Kesar is traditionally used as a medicine, spice, and cosmetic aid.  

Dr Amit Sharma, an Ayurveda practitioner from Agra, says Ayurveda texts mention three aspects of mental abilities: namely dhi (learning), dhuti (retention), and smriti (recall). Impairment in all three mental processes can cause dementia. 

“We prescribe a mix of saffron, turmeric and Indian gooseberry for early-onset Alzheimer’s symptoms,” says Dr Sharma. “In addition, a mixture of (the herbs) ashwagandha, shankhapushpi, and gotu kola is given depending on associated symptoms.” 

Study outcomes encouraging  

Ayurveda says kesar works as a mood enhancer. Studies show that saffron boosts the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which help to decrease depression, anxiety, and dementia. 

“We also found that the saffron extract protects neurons from the toxic effects of amyloid-beta and inflammation. Thus, it is likely that saffron consumption will be effective in slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Bharate. He adds that the researchers have applied for patents in multiple countries for capsule formulation of this extract. 

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