Alzheimer’s Disease is a debilitating disease that affects the developed world more and more as life expectancy increases. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s Disease can be hard on patients, loved ones, and caregivers. There is no proven cure, and late-stage Alzheimer’s is terminal. Post-diagnosis life expectancy is three to nine years. However, there is emerging evidence that cannabis-derived treatments can help to slow the development of the disease and regenerate parts of the nervous system affected by it.
For families of people who live with AD and dementia, there may be hope. Because of how cannabis interacts with the human body’s endocannabinoid system and cells in the central and peripheral nervous systems, THC- and CBD-derived treatments are being shown to be applicable in some cases to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, with some researchers expressing optimism that cannabis treatments are considerably more effective than current prevalent treatments.
The terms Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are often used interchangeably by non-experts, but in reality, they have different meanings. To be exact, dementia is an umbrella term that includes Alzheimer’s as a more specific subset. That is, all cases of Alzheimer’s are dementia, but not all cases of dementia are Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a broader description of a set of symptoms, of which the specific disease Alzheimer’s may or may not be the cause, so the notion that dementia always progresses into Alzheimer’s is false. Dementia can be caused by other disorders such as Parkinson’s, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, or Huntington’s Disease.
Click here for more information on the Difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is not the same as cannabis. Cannabis, or cannabis sativa, is the whole plant and includes THC, CBD, and at least 111 other less prevalent substances, all known collectively as cannabinoids—more specifically phytocannabinoids (phyto- meaning “plant”). The reason CBD is attracting so much medical attention lately is that it is being shown to contain medicinal properties that might have an effect on many areas of human health. Contrary to what some critics claim, proponents of medical cannabis are not justifying recreational marijuana use by thinly veiling it as medicine. If this were the case, medical marijuana advocates would emphasize THC, which gets users high, rather than CBD, which does not. Medical benefits of CBD have been receiving publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals for decades.
THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets users “high” or “stoned.” CBD, on the other hand, does not create any psychoactive effect in users, no matter how much CBD they take. In fact, CBD has been shown to counteract some effects of THC, like anxiety. For decades, growers have bred cannabis crops that contain more THC and less CBD because they were focused primarily on recreational use. But this is changing with more awareness of CBD’s medical benefits.
CBD can be derived from cannabis in a number of ways, but commercial producers generally use a cold press method to obtain a pure extract. This extract can then be made into an oil that can be vaporized, added to tea, or applied directly to the inflamed skin. It can also be made into a tincture or a spray. Nabiximols is one example of a cannabis-derived medicine. It is an oral spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals and approved in some countries for treating multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms.
CBD works by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), a system of protein and enzyme receptors that serves a regulatory and balancing function in the body. The reason for medical cannabis sometimes being touted by overenthusiastic supporters as a cure-all is that the ECS has a hand in many disparate functions of the body, including the brain and central nervous system. How it works is that the ECS has two types of receptors, CB1 and CB2, which interact with THC and CBD in a number of ways. For example, CBD is an antagonist (or blocker) to CB2 receptors when they become overactive and create inflamed tissue. CB1 receptors and THC work differently. THC interacts with the CB1 receptors that are part of the central nervous system. CBD generally does not interact with the central nervous system, which is why it does not produce psychoactive effects. But for Alzheimer’s Disease, both CBD and THC are important.
THC has been shown to prevent the production of an aberrant protein known as beta-amyloid (Aβ), a toxic peptide composing neural plaques that accumulate on certain parts of the brain. This buildup of plaque causes the resultant loss of brain functioning associated with Alzheimer’s.
More research is needed to further confirm these findings, but scientists tend to make cautious statements, and the fact that these studies are so enthusiastic should be encouraging to those of us whose loved ones live with Alzheimer’s. If plaque buildup is slowed, the development of Alzheimer’s is slowed. If plaque buildup can be stopped altogether, then the development of Alzheimer’s can stop.
Alzheimer’s has traditionally been understood as being characterized by two main features: intracellular neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and extracellular neuritic plaques (NPs), but current research suggests an additional third factor, neuroinflammation, should be included in our understanding of the disease. How neuroinflammation works is that in Alzheimer’s, the aforementioned amyloid peptides cause nerve tissue to be infected. The presence of neuroinflammation on top of plaque buildup adds more complexity to the disease.
CBD has been demonstrated to have neuroprotective effects. This means it can help to prevent the death of nerve cells in the central nervous system. Italian researchers demonstrated this neuroprotective effect by exposing cells to AD-causing peptides, then treating the cells with CBD. CBD protected and prevented the death of nerve cells like ones that are affected by AD.
In a review of available scientific literature on the topic, Luvone et al. expressed cautious optimism about the potential for CBD to be included as an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Cannabis, CBD oil, and THC can also help with debilitating symptoms of AD that affect lifestyle, including assisting in the regulation of motor function, appetite stimulation, and agitation. Patients and carers often find that being a carer of someone who has Alzheimer’s can be very distressing to deal with. This stress only compounds the heartache of a loved one losing his or her memory. Even if cannabis proved ineffective in treating the progression of AD itself, medical cannabis can still offer help and become part of an arsenal of therapies that all come together to provide compassionate care for patients.
Click here to learn more about using CBD for prevention: CBD and THC Oil Could Help Prevent Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.
As we understand more about cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, we will continue to understand more about the complex processes like this that are regulated or influenced by the ECS and see exactly how and to what extent CBD and THC can help. The evidence is strong that medical cannabis including both THC and CBD should be explored for treating AD and other forms of dementia. While much of the evidence is still at a preclinical stage, advocates and loved ones of people living with Alzheimer’s can support research and legalization efforts so this major disease can be treated as effectively as possible, including this case of a Brazilian Alzheimer’s patient being approved for treatment with CBD oil.