Cognition Supplement of the Year: 2021
An Often-Overlooked Supplement that May Assist Cognition


Curcumin, the primary bioactive substance found in the spice turmeric, has been selected as “Cognition Supplement of the Year: 2021″ by Nicknamed “Indian Saffron” because of its brilliant yellow color, its purported benefits include anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antimicrobial, neuroprotective, and cardioprotective effects. It is generally safe, and is available over-the-counter without a prescription.


“Americans spend over 35 billion dollars a year on dietary supplements.”


Curcumin intake dates back nearly 4000 years to the Ayurvedic culture in India1 and has been utilized in many ways over the centuries for its pigment, flavor, and healing properties. It makes up about 8% of the turmeric root,2 is insoluble in water, and is often modified to increase its absorption, making it the best option for harnessing the medicinal qualities of turmeric. India is the world’s leading supplier.

Effects of Curcumin on the Brain

As we get older, our brain begins to shrink in volume; this is associated with the loss of neurons or their reduction in size and primarily affects the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus. The number of synapses in the brain can also decrease and the formation of new neurons may decline. Scientists have observed age-related reductions in neurotransmitter levels.3

Inflammation, often referred to as “inflammaging,” is thought to increase with age; mounting evidence suggests that it can negatively impact the brain and cognitive health.4 Inflammation induction in rodents led to cognitive decline;4,5 other studies indicated that elevated pro-inflammatory cytokine levels are associated with decreased cognitive function.6 Curcumin has been shown to defend against neurodegeneration while promoting the growth of new neurons,7-10 which help combat the loss of brain volume. It can affect the levels of various brain neurotransmitters and, perhaps, aid in restoring their balance, which is lost as people grow older.9,11 Turmeric and curcumin have long been used for their anti-inflammatory properties.12-14

What is Cognitive Health?

Cognitive health defines how well we learn, think, and remember things. Most people think of age as an issue when it comes to declining cognitive function, but high blood pressure, depression, lack of exercise, smoking, brain injuries, alcohol consumption, social isolation, and a poor diet are also contributors.

Curcumin Aids Cognition

Several key trials using bioavailable forms of curcumin demonstrate that it can have positive effects on cognition over time. Cox et al administered curcumin to 60 elderly individuals for four weeks, assessing immediate word recall, reaction time, and visual information processing. They found that the substance improved the participants’ working memory and sustained attention.15 After repeating this study for 12 weeks in a larger cohort (85 elderly subjects), they found similar results.16
Small et al studied curcumin in a group of 40 older subjects for 18 months. The positive cognitive effects were detected by 6 months of administration and maintained throughout the duration of the trial.17 Fifteen people each from the treated and placebo groups were evaluated using a brain PET scan. The curcumin cohort displayed significantly less amyloid-beta plaque and neurofibrillary tangle deposition,17 which are associated with cell death and cognitive disorders.

Lifestyle Can Aid Cognition

A healthy lifestyle can help support optimal cognition and wellbeing. Some of the things you can do to support your cognition include:

• Staying physically active
• Maintaining a healthy diet
• Getting adequate sleep
• Remaining socially connected

Curcumin and Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a neurodegenerative disease, is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.18 Loss of memory and cognitive function are two of its main clinical symptoms. As it progresses, people with AD can have difficulties completing normal daily tasks, getting lost, and repeating questions, while also experiencing behavior and personality changes.

AD is characterized by the buildup of amyloid-beta protein plaques and tau protein-containing neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, which form lesions and interrupt cognitive functioning.

Curcumin has been used experimentally as a diagnostic tool for AD because of how well it binds to these plaques,19 providing more evidence that the supplement can cross, and interact with, the blood-brain barrier. It can also help break down or prevent plaque formation, shown in studies using a curcumin-treated AD mouse model.20

Evidence suggests that curcumin lowers amyloid-plaque levels by suppressing beta-secretase 1 (BACE1) expression,21 an enzyme that catalyzes the first step in their formation. It also accelerated the plaque clearance by increasing the expression of proteins necessary for the phagocytosis of those proteins.22 Macrophages taken from curcumin-treated patients with AD displayed an increase in the protein uptake.23

Antimicrobial Properties of Curcumin

Although there are likely many genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of AD, one area of interest for scientists has been the role of infection. Curcumin has been evaluated against a number of microorganisms suspected of causing or facilitating AD, including Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), Chlamydia pneumoniae, Borrelia burgdorferi, and Porphyromonas gingivalis,24 and has displayed antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial activities.25,26

Curcumin may also benefit cognition by modulating the balance of the bacterial species in the microbiome. The human body coexists with about 100 trillion bacteria, mostly located in the gut. This population is made up of many species that are both good and bad for the body but must live in harmony with its organ systems, cells, and immune cells.

Microbiome dysbiosis occurs when this balance is disturbed (due to diet, illness, infection, antibiotic usage, and inflammation). This can agitate the “microbiota-gut-brain-axis,” an important system that involves the bidirectional communication between gut bacteria and the brain. Data show that this occurs in individuals with AD.27 Several studies have evaluated how curcumin affects the diversity of the microbiome in rodents. Overall, the supplement significantly increased the levels of beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, while decreasing the pathogenic Prevotellaceae, Coriobacterales, Enterobacteria, and Enterococci bacteria.28

Poor Absorption a Drawback

Some of the criticism of curcumin stems from its suboptimal absorption.29 But a new formulation, Longvida,® composed of solid lipid curcumin particles, has increased its bioavailability30 and has been evaluated for its anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and antioxidant properties,15,31,32while also improving cognitive function15,16 and more readily crossing the blood-brain barrier.33


Curcumin and its beneficial effects on inflammation, neuroprotection, neurotransmitter levels, and antimicrobial activity may improve cognition in some cases. Safe and inexpensive, compared to many prescription medicines, curcumin deserves its recognition as Cognition Supplement of the Year: 2021.


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By Ari Magill, MD