As the baby boom generation begins to reach age 65 and beyond, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease is escalating rapidly. This debilitating condition causes deterioration of thinking skills and memory, leading to the inability to recognize loved ones or carry out basic tasks. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S.
About 5.4 million Americans now live with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise to 13.8 million by 2050 if no prevention or cure is developed. Fortunately, medical research is beginning to understand the mechanisms of the disease, which is paving the way for treatments.
Among the most promising is the use of medical cannabis. In January we reported on a clinical study by Israeli researchers which showed that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the main active ingredient in cannabis—caused a “significant reduction” in mental illness severity, particularly with regard to irritability, aggression/agitation, delusions and insomnia.
A new study carried out by the Salk Institute is providing insight into the way medical cannabis actually counters the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Salk Institute scientists have found preliminary evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other compounds found in marijuana can promote the cellular removal of amyloid beta, a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
While these exploratory studies were conducted in neurons grown in the laboratory, they may offer insight into the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease and could provide clues to developing novel therapeutics for the disorder.
“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,” says Salk Professor David Schubert, the senior author of the paper.”
Amyloid beta accumulations within nerve cells of the brain are a major component of plaque deposits, which are the signature of Alzheimer’s disease. Although much is still unknown about how this process develops, the application of THC and related compounds appears to protect the nerve cells from dying. Again, we see the miraculous potential of cannabis to treat ailments through its anti-inflammatory properties, by stimulating the body’s endocannabinoid system. Inflammation is believed to be the cause of many diseases.
“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, a postdoctoral researcher in Schubert’s laboratory and first author of the paper. “When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”
Subsequent experimentation showed that the application of THC “reduced amyloid beta protein levels and eliminated the inflammatory response from the nerve cells caused by the protein, thereby allowing the nerve cells to survive.”
This promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is yet another way that the miraculous cannabis plant provides medical benefits to a host of human ailments. It is past time for governments to give up their senseless, immoral prohibition of cannabis so the remaining barriers to medical research can be cleared.