Cannabis and Alzheimer’s Disease: What the Research Shows
For both patients and their loved ones, Alzheimer’s Disease ranks among the most challenging conditions one can experience. This chronic neurodegenerative disorder leads to progressive symptoms including dementia, memory loss, emotional issues, and speech problems, among others. Few treatments exist and available therapies only address some symptoms, but not the progression of the disease itself. The search for new therapeutic options has led to significant interest in cannabis-based treatments and researchers are currently working to advance our understanding of the possible roles medical cannabis could play in the future of Alzheimer’s treatment.
In the absence of effective conventional interventions for treating Alzheimer’s disease, some experts have begun to explore the possibility that medical cannabis may hold the key to disrupting the neurodegenerative process that drives the disease’s progression. Researchers are particularly interested in how cannabis medicines might interact with the body’s own endocannabinoid system, which regulates brain function and could play a neuroprotective role.
Scientific inquiry into the impact of cannabis medicines on Alzheimer’s disease has gained momentum in recent years, leading to the following notable studies:
- New findings presented at Neuroscience 2018 concluded that “Treating Alzheimer’s disease mice with the psychoactive compound found in marijuana improves memory and reduces neuronal loss, suggesting a possible therapy for the human disease.”
- A 2016 study by the Salk Institute found that THC (one of the primary compounds found in most cannabis medicines) helped to reverse the buildup of harmful amyloid plaques within the brain that contribute to neurodegeneration through the death of brain cells. Researchers also found that THC reduces inflammation, which contributes to brain cell damage.
- A 2016 study performed by researchers in Israel administered medical cannabis oil to a sample group of Alzheimer’s patients and observed a significant reduction in dementia symptoms. The study’s authors concluded that cannabis treatment was a “safe and promising treatment option” for addressing Alzheimer’s symptoms.
- A 2014 study appearing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease also examined the impact of THC on reducing amyloid plaque buildup and produced positive results. Researchers concluded that “these sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”
These findings are very encouraging and we’re eager to learn more as new data become available. It’s also important to note that researchers focusing on cannabis-based treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have cited the difficulty of obtaining proper licensing as an obstacle to performing clinical trials. Despite its availability to patients in many states through regulated dispensaries, American researchers may only obtain cannabis from a limited supply produced by the federal government. Future expansion of research opportunities could open the door to more extensive studies and dramatically advance our understanding of how cannabis may benefit patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
We understand the challenges faced by patients and families impacted by an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and we’ll continue to follow emerging scientific findings closely. Our resources will be updated on an ongoing basis as new information becomes available. Due to the complexity of Alzheimer’s symptoms, we encourage patients and caregivers considering medical cannabis to thoroughly discuss your treatment plan with your physician and carefully document outcomes to help evaluate the patient’s response. As always, our staff is available to answer any questions we can to ensure that your experience with medical cannabis is safe, well-informed, and as beneficial as possible.
CBD for Alzheimer’s: Treatment reduces plaque buildups in the brain that cause disease
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Cannabidiol, or CBD, continues to gain support as a remedy for everything from stress to bacterial infections. A new study reveals marijuana’s non-psychoactive ingredient may also be the key to stopping the triggers for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University say high doses of CBD restores the function of key proteins that clean up beta-amyloid plaque buildups in the brain. These clumps are one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
Their study finds a two-week treatment course in mice boosted the proteins TREM2 and IL-33. Both contribute to the brain’s immune cells being able to clean out dead cells and other debris in the body. When plaques pile up in the brain, they start interfering with the communication between neurons and lead to brain cell death. Levels of both proteins decrease in patients with Alzheimer’s.
For the first time, investigators report that CBD treatments normalized the levels of these proteins. CBD also helped to improve cognitive function in mice with a form of early onset familial Alzheimer’s. Dr. Babak Baban, an immunologist and associate dean for research in the Dental College of Georgia, says CBD helped to reduce levels of IL-6. Researchers believe this particular immune protein has a link to high levels of inflammation in Alzheimer’s patients.
“Right now we have two classes of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s,” neurologist Dr. John Morgan explains in a university release. “But we have nothing that gets to the pathophysiology of the disease.”
Currently, one class of Alzheimer’s medications increases the levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which the disease also reduces. The other class targets NMDA receptors that handle communication between the neurons and are vital for memory functions.
Tremendous cognitive boosts due to CBD
In the case of IL-33, the study finds CBD helps the protein sound the alarm that there are “invaders” in the brain that need sweeping out. Researchers add that IL-33 expression is highest in the brain, which is why it’s so important for fighting beta-amyloid plaque accumulation. Dr. Baban says IL-33 helps to turn down inflammation tied to Alzheimer’s and restores immune balance.
For TREM2, CBD allowed this protein to combine with other proteins on the surface of cells to transmit signals which activate immune cells. In the brain, TREM2 helps to activate microglial cells. These cells are exclusive to the brain and help eliminate invading viruses and damaged neurons.
The results of the mice treatments show their levels of IL-33 and TREM2 increased by seven and ten times, respectively.
Along with higher protein levels, mice performed better in cognitive assessment tests. The animals were better able to differentiate between familiar items and new ones and also displayed improved movement as well.
Study first author Dr. Hesam Khodadadi notes that people with Alzheimer’s may experience movement problems like stiffness or an impaired gait. In mice, the disease causes them to move in an endless circle. However, Khodadadi reports this disorder stopped after treatment with CBD.
Can CBD help prevent Alzheimer’s in its early stages?
The study worked with mice experiencing the late stages of early onset Alzheimer’s; giving the subjects high doses every other day for two weeks. Khodadadi says the next step will be to determine the best doses for patients and experiment with CBD treatments administered earlier in the disease’s progression.
Researchers are also exploring if they can administer these CBD doses using an inhaler, which would improve the delivery of CBD to the brain. Currently, researchers gave the mice CBD doses in their stomachs and allowed it to filter throughout the body from there.
Study authors are also hopeful CBD will have the same impact on other versions of Alzheimer’s. Familial Alzheimer’s is an inherited, genetic version of the disease that typically surfaces in a person’s 30s or 40s. About 10 to 15 percent of patients have early onset familial Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Baban says the team is already looking to establish CBD’s effectiveness on the more common forms or Alzheimer’s in clinical trials. In these cases, plaques and neurofibrillary tangles both contribute to brain cell death. The study author notes that beta-amyloid plaques usually start to form in the brain 15 to 20 years before dementia symptoms even appear.
Marijuana Compound Removes Toxic Alzheimer’s Protein From The Brain
An active compound in marijuana called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been found to promote the removal of toxic clumps of amyloid beta protein in the brain, which are thought to kickstart the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The finding supports the results of previous studies that found evidence of the protective effects of cannabinoids, including THC, on patients with neurodegenerative disease.
“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 one of the team, David Schubert from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California.
Schubert and his colleagues tested the effects of THC on human neurons grown in the lab that mimic the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
If you’re not familiar with this special little compound, it’s not only responsible for the majority of marijuana’s psychological effects – including the high – thanks to its natural pain-relieving properties, it’s also been touted as an effective treatment for the symptoms of everything from HIV and chemotherapy to chronic pain, post traumatic stress disorder, and stroke.
In fact, THC appears to be such an amazing medical agent, researchers are working on breeding genetically modified yeast that can produce it way more efficiently than it would be to make synthetic versions.
The compound works by passing from the lungs to the bloodstream, where it attaches to two types of receptors, cannabinoid receptor (CB) 1 and 2, which are found on cell surfaces all over the body.
In the brain, these receptors are most concentrated in neurons associated with pleasure, memory, thinking, coordination and time perception, and usually bind with a class of lipid molecules called endocannabinoids that are produced by the body during physical activity to promote cell-to-cell signalling in the brain.
But THC can also bind to them in much the same way, and when they do, they start messing with your brain’s ability to communicate with itself.
They can be a good and a bad thing, because while you might forget something important or suddenly be incapable of swinging a baseball bat, you’ll probably feel amazing, and want to eat all the snacks:
Over the years, research has suggested that by binding to these receptors, THC could be having another effect on ageing brains, because it appears to helps the body clear out the toxic accumulations – or ‘plaques’ – of amyloid beta.
No one’s entirely sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s thought to result from a build-up of two types of lesions: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.
Amyloid plaques sit between the neurons as dense clusters of beta-amyloid molecules – a sticky type of protein that easily clumps together – and neurofibrillary tangles are caused by defective tau proteins that clump up into a thick, insoluble mass in the neurons.
It’s not clear why these lesions begin to appear in the brain, but studies have linked inflammation in the brain tissue to the proliferation of plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. So if we can find something that eases brain inflammation while at the same time encourages the body to clear out these lesions, we could be on the way to finding the first effective treatment for Alzheimer’s ever.
Back in 2006, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute found that THC inhibits the formation of amyloid plaques by blocking the enzyme in the brain that produces them, and now Schubert and his team have demonstrated that it can also eliminate a dangerous inflammatory response from the nerve cells, ensuring their survival.
“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 one of the team, Antonio Currais.
“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.”
It’s exciting stuff, but it’s so far only been demonstrated in neurons in the lab, so the next step will be for Schubert and his team to observe the link bet ween THC and reduced inflammation and plaque build-up in a clinical trial.
They’ve reportedly already found a drug candidate called J147 that appears to have the same effects as THC, so this might be the way they can test the effects of THC without the Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.