Alzheimer disease (also known as Alzheimer’s disease, or simply Alzheimer’s), the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, is a progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder and the most common form of dementia. It is estimated that Alzheimer disease is the cause of 60-70 percent of all cases of dementia. About five million Americans have Alzheimer’s, which equates to one in three senior citizens who eventually die from the condition or another form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s was discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first diagnosed it after performing an autopsy on the brain of a woman who died of an unknown mental illness. Surprisingly, Alzheimer’s actually begins damaging the brain up to a decade prior to the onset of any form of short-term memory loss — the first symptom of the disease.
Preclinical Stage and Causes
During this preclinical stage, Alzheimer’s patients appear to be symptom-free. Their brains, however, are undergoing “toxic changes” involving unusually large deposits of proteins. These proteins form growths called amyloid plaques (also known as beta-amyloids) and tau tangles throughout the brain. Together, these disease structures diminish the function of otherwise healthy brain neurons, which may stop functioning altogether. When this happens, damaged neurons cease communicating with other neurons, resulting in severe memory loss and other cognitive disorders.
The damage inflicted by Alzheimer’s initially occurs in the hippocampus, a section of the brain known to play a role in memory formation and function. As Alzheimer’s progresses, it kills an increasingly large number of brain cells, eventually reaching outside the hippocampus and disrupting other cognitive processes. This causes the brain to shrink, eventually resulting in severe debilitation and death.
The cannabinoids in cannabis help to remove these excess plaques from the brain by literally carrying them through the blood-brain barrier. Depending on the progression of the disease in a particular patient, this may either reduce the progression of the disease, halt its progression, or even begin restoring memories and improving neurological function in the brain.
Some researchers theorize that Alzheimer’s results from a lifetime of brain inflammation. Because the cannabinoids in marijuana have been proven to be one of the safest and most effective anti-inflammatory therapies available, it is believed that consumption early in life or during middle age may stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s by decreasing inflammation and preventing the formation of amyloid plaques and tau tangles.
Alzheimer disease typically strikes individuals in their 60s. Symptoms progress in stages and involve:
- Difficulty remembering newly learned information
- Mood and behavior changes
- Deepening confusion about events, time, and places
- Unfounded suspicions about family, friends, and professional caregivers
- Serious memory loss and behavior changes
- Difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking
Even if one fully discounts the ability of cannabis to help mitigate the onset of Alzheimer disease by decreasing inflammation in the brain and preventing deposits of amyloid plaques from forming, it is known to be a powerful tool against many symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including depression, insomnia, and anxiety. It is also helpful for dealing with the side effects of many traditional pharmaceutical drugs used to treat the disease, including loss of appetite and nausea.
A 2006 study found that “there is a previously unrecognized molecular mechanism through which THC may directly affect the progression of Alzheimer’s disease” by blocking an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme helps amyloid plaque form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The study found that Aricept and Cognex. two drugs commonly prescribed to treat Alzheimer’s, also serve to block acetylcholinesterase.
However, when tested at double the concentration of THC, Aricept blocked plaque formation only 22 percent as well as as the world’s most famous cannabinoid; Cognex blocked plaque formation only 7 percent as well as THC.
“These findings offer convincing evidence that THC possesses remarkable inhibitory qualities, especially when compared to [Alzheimer’s drugs] currently available to patients.”
A study published in 2013 in the journal Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience found that cannabis can slow and sometimes halt the progression of Alzheimer’s.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed that THC’s antioxidant properties, which give it neuroprotective benefits, directly affect Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid levels. The researchers also found that THC “enhances” the function of the energy factories, called mitochondria, in brain cells.
The study concluded:
“THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”
Another 2014 study published in the journal Neuron found that the body’s endocannabinoid system may inhibit the effects of amyloid plaques and improve neuroplasticity, which is the ability of brain cells to form new connections and handle different types of communications.
A March 2014 study published in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed that CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, actually improves memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients. Although the exact mechanism is unclear, CBD reverses neurological damage in the brain by helping repair and even “grow” new neurons.
Jack Herer’s Mother
In 2006, at Ed Rosenthal’s Wonders of Cannabis trade show in San Francisco, the late Jack Herer, author of the best-selling book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, delivered a emotional speech regarding how his mother had used cannabis during the final years of her life to successfully battle Alzheimer disease. Although purely anecdotal, Herer described how the herb provided his mother with clarity, restored much of her memory and “presence,” and lifted her mood.
Herer told the audience how his mother began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 1983, when she was 75 years old. She began forgetting the faces of close relatives she had seen only months prior. “When she came to California, I gave her marijuana morning, noon, and night,” said Herer. He noted that, after six weeks of heavy cannabis consumption, his mother was symptom free.
“After six weeks, she had no symptoms of Alzheimer’s whatsoever.”
When his mother departed, Herer gave her an initial batch of 60 cannabis joints and told her he would send her another 60 each month so that she could continue treating herself. Unfortunately, when his mother returned to her home in Florida, her husband forbade her to possess or consume cannabis due to its illegality; she trashed the joints her son had lovingly provided to her. Mrs. Herer soon digressed into severe memory loss and required hospitalization. For the last four years of her life, she recognized neither her son nor any other relatives.
“If you start using [cannabis] when you’re 20 or 30 or 40, your chances are high you will not get Alzheimer’s. Cannabis has been proven to be many times more effective than the drugs currently being used to treat it.”
Lack of Clinical Studies
Unfortunately, no clinical trials have been conducted on the effect of cannabis and particular cannabinoids or terpenes in the treatment of Alzheimer disease. Until cannabis is reclassified from Schedule I under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act, research into this highly degenerative disease that has such a dramatic impact on the lives of so many seniors and their families will remain roadblocked.
As long as the government maintains an official stance that cannabis has zero medicinal value and is a highly addictive, dangerous substance, critical research and human studies into the efficacy of cannabis for this and other diseases cannot occur in the United States.
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