Oxidative stress has been implicated in mechanisms leading to neuronal cell injury in various pathological states of the brain. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive disorder with cognitive and memory decline, speech loss, personality changes and synapse loss. Many approaches have been undertaken to understand AD, but the heterogeneity of the etiologic factors makes it difficult to define the clinically most important factor determining the onset and progression of the disease. However, increasing evidence indicates that factors such as oxidative stress and disturbed protein metabolism and their interaction in a vicious cycle are central to AD pathogenesis. Brains of AD patients undergo many changes, such as disruption of protein synthesis and degradation, classically associated with the heat shock response, which is one form of stress response. Heat shock proteins are proteins serving as molecular chaperones involved in the protection of cells from various forms of stress.Recently, the involvement of the heme oxygenase (HO) pathway in anti-degenerative mechanisms operating in AD has received considerable attention, as it has been demonstrated that the expression of HO is closely related to that of amyloid precursor protein (APP). HO induction occurs together with the induction of other HSPs during various physiopathological conditions. The vasoactive molecule carbon monoxide and the potent antioxidant bilirubin, products of HO-catalyzed reaction, represent a protective system potentially active against brain oxidative injury. Given the broad cytoprotective properties of the heat shock response there is now strong interest in discovering and developing pharmacological agents capable of inducing the heat shock response. Increasing interest has been focused on identifying dietary compounds that can inhibit, retard or reverse the multi-stage pathophysiological events underlying AD pathology. Alzheimer's disease, in fact, involves a chronic inflammatory response associated with both brain injury and beta-amyloid associated pathology. All of the above evidence suggests that stimulation of various repair pathways by mild stress has significant effects on delaying the onset of various age-associated alterations in cells, tissues and organisms. Spice and herbs contain phenolic substances with potent antioxidative and chemopreventive properties, and it is generally assumed that the phenol moiety is responsible for the antioxidant activity. In particular, curcumin, a powerful antioxidant derived from the curry spice turmeric, has emerged as a strong inducer of the heat shock response. In light of this finding, curcumin supplementation has been recently considered as an alternative, nutritional approach to reduce oxidative damage and amyloid pathology associated with AD. Here we review the importance of the heme oxygenase pathway in brain stress tolerance and its significance as an antidegenerative mechanism potentially important in AD pathogenesis. These findings have offered new perspectives in medicine and pharmacology, as molecules inducing this defense mechanism appear to be possible candidates for novel cytoprotective strategies. In particular, manipulation of endogenous cellular defense mechanisms such as the heat shock response, through nutritional antioxidants or pharmacological compounds, represents an innovative approach to therapeutic intervention in diseases causing tissue damage, such as neurodegeneration. Consistent with this notion, maintenance or recovery of the activity of vitagenes, such as the HO gene, conceivably may delay the aging process and decrease the occurrence of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.