Studies have shown that the cannabinoids found in marijuana play beneficial roles in the treatment of many debilitating medical conditions affecting the human brain. For example, a recently published study confirmed previous indications that cannabinoids help to shrink aggressive brain tumors. Another recent study linked cannabis use with increased chances of surviving a brain injury. Now, another study has confirmed that cannabis may also play a role in the treatment of the degenerative brain disease known as Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer disease, a form of dementia that most commonly strikes people aged 65 and older, is a bit of a medical mystery. Although there is no reason known to cause the onset, nor to cure it, a study from a team in South Florida, lead by neuroscientist Chuanhai Cao, PhD, found that low levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, may “slow or even halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease earlier this year, was titled “The Potential Therapeutic Effects of THC on Alzheimer’s Disease.” The study summary stated, “These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”

There are many hypotheses about what causes the progression of the condition. The most commonly accepted, lists plaques and tangles in the brain as the culprits causing the degeneration and death of brain cells, which results in such symptoms as memory loss. The Alzheimer’s Association defines plaques as, “deposits of a protein fragment, called beta-amyloid, that build up in the spaces between nerve cells.” Tangles are defined as, “twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside cells.” It is normal for plaques and tangles to develop in an aging brain, but the development significantly increases, for a reason unknown, in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

In this particular study, the cells tested were outside the body in an artificial cultural medium, using a method known as in vitro. The small amount of THC that was introduced to these cells was able to reduce the the build up of beta-amyloid and clear debris in the cells. If THC is able to reduce the build up of plaques, which stimulate the disease in the brain, it will likely be able to prevent or slow the progression of the disease when introduced inside the human body. The study also found that the introduction of THC increased the function of specialized subunits within cells known as mitochondria. Mitochondria play important roles in the life-cycle, growth, and death of cells. This demonstrates the potential that THC may have to reduce or possibly prevent the degeneration and death of the brain cells in the first place.

Lead author, Cao told USF Health, “THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function.” He added, “Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future.”

When asked about the study, authors confirmed that potential benefits of using THC to treat Alzheimer’s far outweigh the risks, as no toxicity was observed. Although THC is associated with memory impairment, such a minimal quantity used for this study is no worse for a patient than the leading pharmaceuticals most commonly used to treat this disease.

More research must be done on this subject to confirm the findings with one-hundred percent confidence, but this study is a positive indication that the use of cannabis to treat degenerative brain diseases should be explored.


photo credit: Rocky Mountain Oils

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