Studies suggest that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active compound in cannabis, may effectively promote the removal of toxic clumps in the brain and reduce the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease. As no cure or effective treatment exists, cannabis could provide hope for the nearly 50 million people worldwide that have Alzheimer’s or related dementia.
Cannabis May Provide Hope for a Big Problem
Scientists link Alzheimer’s to two types of lesions: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. It is unclear why these legions begin to appear in the brain nor do we know what exactly causes Alzheimer’s. Most believe that a combination of factors; environment, lifestyle, and genetics plays a role in triggering the onset of this neurodegenerative disease.
Regardless of what causes it, there is a bigger problem on our hands. “Alzheimer’s is the only disease in the 10 leading causes of deaths in the United States that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed.”
Furthermore, between 2017 and 2025, every state will see a 14% rise in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s. Thus, finding a cure or any kind of treatment is a growing concern. THC might be able to help.
What do Cannabinoids Do?
Cannabinoid receptors are a class of cell membrane receptors that are a part of the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring and regulate a variety of bodily functions. However, they are particularly numerous in the brain. When consumed, cannabinoids in cannabis interact with these receptors and affect processes associated with appetite, pain, mood, memory, and learning. THC, a cannabinoid, passes from the lungs into the bloodstream where it attaches to two types of receptors associated with memory, pleasure, learning, etc.
According to multiple studies, THC might be one of the most promising compounds we’ve found for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Studies into Cannabis and Alzheimer’s
There have been studies that pointed to the neuroprotective nature of cannabinoids on patients with neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In 2006, a team at the Scripps Research Institute found that THC prevents the build-up of amyloid protein by blocking the enzyme that produces them. However, the study conducted by the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in California might have been the first “to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells,” says team researcher David Schubert. Another study form 2014, concluded that the data “strongly suggest that THC could be a potential treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”
Though the Canadian Alzheimer’s Society claims that, “There is currently no evidence that cannabis is useful for the treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease,” the aforementioned studies present exciting evidence that THC encourages the clearing out of these legions in the brain and reduces inflammation.
Beta-amyloid Protein, Neurofibrillary Tangles, and Inflammation
Beta-amyloid protein is a naturally occurring, microscopic brain protein fragment that collects between neurons. In an Alzheimer’s brain however abnormal levels of this sticky protein begin to clump together to form plaques that disrupt cell function. Neurofibrillary tangles occur when another type of protein called tau collects inside neurons. It appears that this protein accumulates abnormally in the areas of the brain associated with memory. As a by-product of this toxic build-up as well as other factors, inflammation becomes another exasperated issue.
“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,” says Antonio Currais, another member of the Salk Institute’s research team.
Could THC Reverse Aging in General?
Since the Salk Institute published their findings, they received 1.8 million dollars to continue their research. A few years ago, they found a drug candidate called J147 that they claim has the same effects as THC. This would enable them to legally test the effects of THC.
Already, the idea that the once called “gateway” drug could hold a compound that might prove effective in treating Alzheimer’s is amazing. But it gets better.
As of last December, Salk researchers published an article about investigational drug candidates, including J147. In mice, these drugs improve memory and slow the degeneration of brain cells. It’s looking good on that front. However, “Salk researchers have shown how these compounds can also slow aging in healthy older mice, blocking the damage to brain cells that normally occurs during aging and restoring the levels of specific molecules to those seen in younger brains.”
In other words, these two compounds (one that functions like THC) are not only showing to be potentially effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s but reverse broader aging.
Currently, there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s nor a way to stop or slow down its progression. However, if we were to find something that treated brain inflammation while helping the body to clear out toxic clumps, we could well be on our way to finding the first treatment. We might have found it in cannabis. Furthermore, studies show that J147, said to behave like THC, may prevent molecular changes that are associated with aging.