Saffron may help prevent loss of sight in old age and even improve vision in people suffering certain blinding eye diseases.
Research by Silvia Bisti, professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science (The Vision Centre), University of L'Aquila, Italy, has established that saffron has remarkable effects on the genes which regulate the performance of the eye's key vision cells.
Her research has shown that the high-priced golden culinary herb made from crocus flowers not only protects the vision cells (photoreceptors) from damage, it may also act to slow and possibly even reverse the course of blinding diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
AMD is a disease of the retina that can cause loss of central vision and make it difficult to recognise faces, read, drive, and perform other everyday activities.
A clinical trial with patients suffering AMD in Rome has found early indications that treatment with a dietary supplement of saffron may cause damaged eye cells to recover.
"Saffron is not simply an anti-oxidant. It seems to possess a number of other properties which are protective to vision," Bisti said.
"For example it appears to affect genes which regulate the fatty acid content of the cell membrane, and this makes the vision cells tougher and more resilient.
"Secondly we have shown in animal models that a saffron diet will protect the eye from the damaging effects of bright light - something we all suffer whenever we go out in the sun," she said.
Bisti said a third line of research has found that saffron is active in affecting genetic diseases of the eye, such as retinitis pigmentosa, which can cause life-long blindness in young people. Animal research here too offers the prospect of slowing down the progression of sight loss.
And fourthly, saffron given to human patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration, which causes partial or total loss of sight to many people in old age, has shown signs of cell recovery, said a release of The Vision Centre.
"We are excited by these early findings. We will know more when all the results are in later this year," Bisti said. The saffron diet treatment may also be tried as part of a wider experiment involving ways to prevent vision loss in humans in Sydney and Rome later this year.