Curcumin is a poorly water-soluble drug and its oral bioavailability is very low. A new self-microemulsifying drug delivery system (SMEDDS) has been successfully developed to improve the solubility and oral absorption of curcumin. Suitable compositions of SMEDDS formulation were screened via solubility studies of curcumin and compatibility tests. The formulation of curcumin-loaded SMEDDS was optimized by a simplex lattice experiment design. The optimal formulation of SMEDDS was comprised of 57.5% surfactant (emulsifier OP:Cremorphor EL = 1:1), 30.0% co-surfactant (PEG 400) and 12.5% oil (ethyl oleate). The solubility of curcumin (21 mg/g) significantly increased in SMEDDS. The average particle size of SMEDDS-containing curcumin was about 21 nm when diluted in water. No significant variations in particle size and curcumin content in SMEDDS were observed over a period of 3 months at 4 degrees C. The spherical shape of microemulsion droplet was observed under TEM. The dissolution study in vitro showed that more than 95% of curcumin in SMEDDS could be dissolved in pH 1.2 or pH 6.8 buffer solutions in 20 min, however, less than 2% for crude curcumin in 60 min.The in situ absorption property of curcumin-loaded SMEDDS was evaluated in intestines of rats. The results showed the absorption of curcumin in SMEDDS was via passive transfer by diffusion across the lipid membranes. The results of oral absorption experiment in mice showed that SMEDDS could significantly increase the oral absorption of curcumin compared with its suspension. Our study illustrated that the developed SMEDDS formulation held great potential as a possible alternative to traditional oral formulations of curcumin.