Cannabis Attacks Leading Causes of Alzheimers
We have swiped the surface a bit with cancer, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and opioid addiction, etc. But there is also very ugly and devastating life associated with Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia. Roughly 30 million people are victims to it worldwide. The person you know becomes the person you knew and it changes a person's perspective of the world and their surroundings all together. It is traumatic for the patient and their surrounding family and friends. I recommend, friend, if this hits home for you, share it. The impact of knowledge is impeccable, and as you already know, it takes a village - so let's get down to it.
The goal, as always, is treatment and prevention right? The question is, how far has research come in proving it's utility and potential? The disease begins by attacking the brain's hoppocampus: the most critical region for processing memories and remembering things. Memory and cognitive impairments weigh in and contribute to the anxiety, depression, and agitation that is associated with AD. Eventually, this attack feeds further and causes more life-altering symptoms that hinder regular daily functions.
It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. So, clearly, this monster is not just memory loss. It robs our humanity and our dignity, so it is 1000% worth fighting for.
Current treatments are mere bandages for the symptoms. For instance, a common treatment increases acetylcholine levels to help mitigate impairments in cognitive function, but they do nothing to reverse the progression of the disease.
Based on the origin and progression of AD, some treatment approaches could be to:
Reduce Aß plaques and tangles
Soak up the excess free radicals
Reduce inflammation and prevent the activation of microglia to dampen the toxic release of glutamate that kills neurons
Of course, scientists have considered these for decades, and obviously their attempts to cure AD have been unsuccessful. But only relatively recent and limited attention has been given to cannabinoids. And these studies hold unique promise.
How Cannabinoids Affect Alzheimer’s Disease
Much research energy was spent devising ways of getting rid of Aß plaques because it was thought that if you get rid of the plaques, you prevent AD. Unfortunately, the proteins that form these plaques have other important contributions to brain cell function, so if you get rid of the proteins, there are severe consequences. So that’s a no-go.
An alternative approach could be to limit the harmful consequences of having plaques. Mainly, neutralize the damaging free radicals and reduce the harmful inflammatory processes. Fortunately, the prominent cannabinoids, THC and cannabidiol (CBD), are good at both.
THC and CBD are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. These are important qualities because brain inflammation is thought to be a major contributor to AD. So it’s not surprising that anti-inflammatory drugs, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs; e.g., ibuprofen) reduce risk for developing AD. But these drugs, especially their chronic use, can damage the kidneys. CBD and limited amounts of other cannabinoids have been widely used with limited side effects, and are largely considered safe for adult and senior use.
Important CBD Targets in Alzheimer’s Treatment
Numerous studies using mouse models of AD reveal that CBD blunts the ability of Aß plaques to induce inflammation, thereby limiting their toxic effects on brain cells. But importantly, CBD can also reduce the plaques themselves by activating one of its many targets, the PPAR-γ receptor, which improves brain cell survival. This PPAR-γ receptor seems to be an important target for CBD’s treatment benefits in AD. Indeed, a phase II clinical trial found that an activator of PPAR-γ successfully improved cognition and memory in AD. This is in contrast to CBD and THC’s effects on CB2 receptors, which prevent Aß plaques buildup, but don’t seem to improve cognitive function or prevent neurofibrillary tangles.
CBD may also protect against the development of neurofibrillary tangles in cases where Aß plaques underlie their pathology.
CBD Protects Brain Cells
The benefits of CBD on memory and cognition result largely from its ability to protect the brain’s hippocampus from toxins and disease. One important way CBD seems to protect these brain cells is by reducing the activation of microglia.
Combination therapies involving both THC and CBD in mouse models of Alzheimer’s effectively reduce microglia activation and improve Alzheimer's symptoms.
Microglia make up 10% of the cells in the brain. They’re similar to neurons and are “activated” following injury or in disease. Although the purpose of microglia is to protect other brain cells, their chronic activation leads to more harm than good. Activated microglia release glutamate, cytokines, and other harmful substances which, over time, kill neurons.
Not surprisingly, activated microglia are a prevalent feature in the AD brain that contribute to the disease. Some of the current strategies to block the release of harmful chemicals from microglia have serious side effects which preclude their clinical use. Cannabis, however, presents a well-tolerated strategy to dampen the activation of these microglia.
The Future of Cannabis in Alzheimer’s Prevention
Despite cannabis’ exciting potential from pre-clinical studies, we’re still a long way from using cannabis to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s in humans. For one, seemingly promising AD treatment strategies that work in rodents haven’t translated well to humans or have severe side effects. But even more limiting, humans take a lot longer to age than rodents. We can obtain data on the effectiveness of cannabis in rodent models of AD within a year, but humans require decades.
Nonetheless, cannabis has been effective at treating some of its challenging symptoms. In a small trial of 10 patients with Alzheimer’s, a four-week treatment with cannabis oil reduced some of the cognitive symptoms of AD. Cannabis has also been shown to generally improve quality of life for AD patients by improving sleep, reducing agitation, and increasing food intake in AD patients.
Despite the dearth of long-term studies, if AD runs in your family, you may choose not to wait. Increased access to legal cannabis allows people to take control of their own healthcare, and it may be worth having a conversation with your physician about the benefits of cannabis-based preventative treatment strategies.
And that right there is why we do what we do. Why we are pushing so hard for legalization; why we are reaching as high as we can, beyond the low hanging fruit for our fellow-humans. It is unlike any other reward to improve human life, and give a positive meaning and hope. We love it. More to come!
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Josh Kaplan earned his Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from Oregon Health & Science University in 2015. He is currently a freelance writer and a senior fellow at the University of Washington conducting medicinal cannabis research.