Cape Town - With no known cure to date, a Cape Town-based research group is investigating the use of curcumin, one of the primary components of turmeric responsible for giving its striking yellow hue, and its potential use for the alleviation of Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
The progressive brain disorder is caused by a loss of neurons in the substantia nigra, located in the midbrain and responsible for movement and the production of dopamine.
Head of the Parkinson’s Disease Research Group, based at Stellenbosch University’s Biomedical Research Institute (BMRI), Professor Soraya Bardien said: “Curcumin has many really great therapeutic properties. People use it for when they have a cut and they want to stop the bleeding, but it’s also known to have anti-inflammatory properties, anti-oxidant properties, and these are actually key processes in Parkinson’s disease.”
Parkinson’s disease affects motor control resulting in body shakes, stiffness, difficulty walking and talking, and balance and co-ordination.
Motor challenges tend to start at 60 years and older, but other symptoms such as depression, sleep disturbances, problems controlling blood pressure (autonomic disturbances), fatigue, and memory difficulties can begin decades earlier.
The research into the use of curcumin for Parkinson’s disease alleviation is, however, in its early stages and looks to slow down the rapid loss of neurons.
Bardien said the majority of people with the disease do not get diagnosed. “It’s only afterwards when they start having the motor problems that they then link it to the disease.
“Worldwide, the disease is not picked up early enough. For many people, even over 60s, they’re not diagnosed but the situation is far worse in Africa where we have so few neurologists. Ideally, you need a neurologist to detect Parkinson’s disease but we have so few of them in South Africa,” she said.
In certain communities, the condition is thought to be linked to witchcraft, thus impacting testing and treatment or seen as common symptoms related to old age and ageing.
Africa has the lowest numbers of neurologists, with the numbers in South Africa a little less bleak with a little over 100 in practice, according to the World Federation of Neurology.
Parkinson’s disease is the fastest-growing neurological disorder worldwide (faster than Alzheimer’s disease), but the prevalence in South Africa is not known, Bardien said.
The group has recently started working with a large global consortium, the Global Parkinson’s Genetics Programme (GP2). GP2 aims to collect samples and data from around the world with the objective of including historically under-represented groups in genetic research.
A second-year PhD student working on the research, Jessica Burns, said: “We are trying to not just see if curcumin is able to alleviate those symptoms but we are also trying to find a way to get the body to better absorb the curcumin and to get it to the brain.”