There’s good news on the horizon for both Alzheimer’s patients and for supporters of medical marijuana. THC—one of the active compounds in marijuana—has been found to remove the clumps of toxic amyloid plaque that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims.
If you’re not familiar with THC, it’s short for tetrahydrocannabinol. It's one of the two main chemical components of marijuana. It’s powerful medicine. It’s also the chemical which give you a “high.” In spite of this, THC is currently used to treat an amazing array of conditions from chronic pain to the side effects of chemotherapy. And while federal law still makes it very difficult to study the medicinal effects of cannabis (marijuana), more research is being done every day. There are already several cannabis-based prescription drugs on the market and more are in the works.
Although cannabis has been studied as a possible treatment for some types of brain cancer, looking at it as an Alzheimer’s treatment is a fairly new idea. Earlier research has suggested that THC helps block the formation of amyloid plaques. However, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California say their study is the first to show that it also reduces inflammation in the brain. And though medicine has long believed that this inflammation occurs in response to the buildup of amyloid plaques, new research suggests that we may have gotten the wrong end of the stick.
Mounting evidence says that inflammation itself may be the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease. It now appears that beta-amyloid may just be a symptom of the inflammatory process. That means that a substance which can both reduce inflammation and clear out these plaques just might be the magic bullet.
And THC could be it.
Here’s something you probably don’t know: our brains make THC-like chemicals of their own. And cells all over our bodies—including in our brains—have specialized slots called “receptors” that THC and similar chemicals can bind to. We have an entire system called the “endocannabinoid system” that’s made just for this purpose. It’s the chemical binding of THC to these receptors that appears to help clear out the clumps of beta-amyloid.
It also seems to be what reduces inflammation. Scientists already knew that the body produced a THC-like substance in response to brain inflammation. But till now, they believed this substance came from immune cells. However, the current study showed that it’s the nerve cells themselves that produce this substance. They do this in a last-ditch effort to stay alive when overwhelmed by beta-amyloid. When THC is introduced, it achieves the same protective effect while also removing beta-amyloid.
Cooling brain inflammation while clearing out amyloid plaque means brain cells that would otherwise die survive. And each brain cell that survives means slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s. In fact, if these study results pan out it could mean that one day Alzheimer’s will become a completely treatable—or even preventable—disease.
And that day might be sooner than we imagine.
So far, researchers have only experimented with neurons in the lab. The treatment hasn’t been tested in people or even in animals. However, a clinical trial in living brains is the next step. And while federal law makes the use of actual cannabis difficult, the researchers say they’ve identified a drug candidate that has the same effects as THC. If federal regulations make studying THC impossible, they’ll investigate this instead.
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