According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 5.4 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Without a cure in sight, analysts expect this figure to hit 13.8 million by 2050.
For patients diagnosed with the medical condition, cannabis has previously been proven to address inflammation, anxiety and other secondary symptoms related to the disease. But now, a new study published in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease from Salk Institute suggests that the plant plays a more proactive role in the fight against the devastating illness.
Amyloid Beta Proteins
During the study, scientists focused on a specific type of protein that was believed to cause cellular inflammation in patients with the condition. Called amyloid beta, the compound has a tendency to accumulate within the nerve cells of the brain, which leads to plaque deposits. The accumulation hampers communication between neurons, causing spikes in memory loss- a common symptom linked to the disease. Preserving nerve cells and decreasing beta-amyloid production may offer long-term hope for patients.
Cannabis enters the study as a protective agent that prevents nerve cells from getting destroyed by the protein. “Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells,” said Salk Professor David Schubert, the senior author of the paper.
THC and Alzheimer’s Disease
The cannabinoid responsible for keeping nerve cells alive in patients is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, or the psychoactive compound of marijuana. In the paper, scientists tested their theory through rigorous lab testing. The researchers exposed nerve cells being plagued by beta-amyloid to THC, and found that the compound prevented the degradation of nerve cells through the reduction of beta-amyloid levels. This also decreased inflammation around the cells. By improving signaling between neurons, doctors might be able to boost the quality of life in patients with Alzheimer’s, instead of being limited to offering medications that only go as far as maintaining the current condition of the individual.
“Inflammation within the brain is a major component of the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it has always been assumed that this response was coming from immune-like cells in the brain, not the nerve cells themselves,” explained Antonio Currais, a postdoctoral researcher in Schubert’s laboratory and first author of the paper.
Alzheimer’s disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In addition to THC, physical exercise may also help promote healthy brain activity and the production of endocannabinoids in patients, which could slow down the spread of the illness.
A 2013 study from the Neuroscience Research Australia supports weed’s role in preventing the formation of amyloid build up. During the study, scientists administered CBD in mice that displayed Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. Researchers discovered that the application of the compound helped improve short-term memory.