How Cannabis May Slow the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease

An explanation on how cannabis can help Alzheimer's

Image Credit: By Ocskay Mark on shutterstock.

Where did I put my keys? What do you call that thingamajig that you keep in your trunk? Who is that boy with Bob? Why did I call you?

Everybody forgets things occasionally. Who can remember the names of all their kids’ friends? You’ve probably have been on your way somewhere and left your wallet or purse at home. Or maybe you forgot why went upstairs in the first place? These things happen to everybody.

So, should you get an MRI? Or call the doctor? Freak out?

That depends, but most of the time, no. The problem is that dementia–and in particular, Alzheimer’s disease is a stealthy foe. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disorder that sneaks up on people. It’s a slowly developing, progressive disease. Experts at the Mayo Clinic explain that the disease can last more than a decade–maybe even longer. Eventually, though–if Alzheimer’s is the culprit–it will eventually affect most areas of your brain. Everything that makes you, you–your memory, your thinking, judgment, language, problem-solving abilities, movement and even your personality–can all be affected. You could disappear! Certain areas of research are beginning to show how cannabis and its potential medicinal compounds can alleviate the symptoms and help prevent the onset and degeneration of Alzheimer’s disease.

Medical professionals who study the disease and watch it take over someone tells us there are generally five stages associated with Alzheimer’s:

(1) Preclinical Alzheimer’s: There are no symptoms in preclinical Alzheimer’s. For those who are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, a test may be performed to determine the level of build-up of a protein called amyloid beta. Onset may begin 10-20 years prior to developing clinical symptoms.

(2) Mild cognitive impairment: Symptoms are mild, often associated with forgetfulness as a normal part of the aging process. Forgetting calendar appointments or names and faces are common, but do not alarm significant others or severely impact relationships. GEnerally lasts 2-5 years.

(3) Mild dementia: More alarming symptoms may begin to appear such as getting lost. Becoming irritable with subtle changes in personality. Taking on complex tasks or making sound judgments become more difficult. Generally lasts 2-5 years.

(4) Moderate dementia: Memory loss is becoming much more profound to the extent that sufferers require help with daily tasks. Psychotic symptoms may begin to appear such as hallucinations or paranoia. Generally lasts 2-4 years.

(5) Severe dementia: By this stage, the build-up of these proteins and the subsequent inflammation in the brain has developed to the extent that there is global damage to the brain tissue–including lesions and marked shrinkage of brain volume. By this stage, sufferers have developed a complete dependency on caregivers including losing bowel and bladder function, and this stage often includes becoming mute.

These descriptions are only rough generalizations, but in most cases, they follow this stealthy pattern. At the end, however, all bodily functions are impaired, eventually leading to organ failure and death. Not an optimistic forecast! But there is optimism for research into developing treatments that may be able to reduce the neuroinflammation present in Alzheimer’s sufferers. Cannabis may be one of those treatments.

An article in HealthLine admits that while there is no “cure” for Alzheimer’s, some treatment options and various preventive measures can slow down its progression. Dietary changes, supplements, exercises for both the mind and the body are all employed. And, as the disease progresses, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are prescribed.

What should someone look for if they suspect that forgetting their keys or the point of a conversation is more than forgetfulness?

Over time, people suffering from Alzheimer’s will experience the following decline in their abilities to:

  • Remember
  • Think
  • Judge
  • Speak, or Find words
  • Problem solve
  • Express themselves
  • Move

So, if there is no “cure,” are there any alternative measures people can undertake to fight back? There are several foods and dietary supplements that are commonly used such as coconut oil, Omega-3 fatty acids, CoQ10, Coral calcium, even acupuncture, and aromatherapy. Many herbal remedies like ginkgo biloba are also on the list, although some of them may have negative interactions with prescription drugs. Most of the herbs that are on the list are there because of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

As mentioned, researchers are looking in another direction: cannabis, specifically, its key cannabinoid components: THC and CBD.

CNN recently reported (June 2016) that small doses of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component in cannabis, may stimulate the removal of toxic plaque in the brain mentioned earlier. Additionally, CBD is well known for its ability to block inflammation, another complication that accompanies the disease. The senior researcher and a professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies noted that “… it is reasonable to conclude that there is a therapeutic potential of cannabinoids for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.” A director at the Alzheimer’s Association, Keith Fargo, maintains that “marijuana as a legitimate avenue of research.” Microsoft billionaire founder Bill Gates is one of the key investors in the Alzheimer’s research effort.

A postdoctoral researcher involved in the study noted that by exposing beta-amyloid proteins to THC, the levels of the proteins were reduced and stopped the inflammatory response and allowed the nerve cells to survive. He noted that “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. 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.”

The researchers cautioned that their study was a laboratory model and the clinical trials need to be conducted to validate their findings.

There are important ways that cannabis derivatives could help fight the effects of Alzheimer’s, namely:

  • Slow the buildup of neural plaques
  • Fights inflammation
  • Help prevent cell death
  • Stimulate cell growth

In regards to neural plaques, a pathological marker of the disease is a toxic aggregation of peptides in the neural tissue. A 2008 study published in the Molecular Pharmaceutics journal showed that THC slowed this overgrowth. In fact, other researchers determined that THC was,

a considerably more effective inhibitor of AChE-induced Aβ deposition than the approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, donepezil, and tacrine, which reduced Aβ aggregation by only 22% and 7%, respectively, at twice the concentration used in our studies.

Again, researchers cautioned that laboratory trials need to be validated by human trials, but that the results are promising.

It is true that given the ability of cannabis to allow Alzheimer patients to live happier and more functional lives, more clinical research needs to be conducted to see to what extent its components–THC and CBD–can be helpful in not only relieving symptoms but dealing with the damage the disease inflicts on its victims.

“From appetite stimulation and weight control to motor functioning and agitation reduction, the improved quality of life that cannabis may offer these patients should be enough to warrant a rescheduling of these versatile cannabinoids.”

This is a very optimistic start. More research is needed to discover how Cannabis can be integrated into a regimen of prevention and healing neuroinflammation for future generations to benefit from.

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
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