So, what’s the deal with marijuana and Alzheimer’s?
The population of the United States is quickly aging as the Baby-Boomer generation is now between the ages of 54 and 72 years old. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, more than 43 million people are over the age of 65, and this number is expected to double over the next 30 years. According to statistics provided by the Alzheimer's Association, one in three seniors dies with some form of dementia or Alzheimer's, and it’s the fifth leading cause of death in people age 65 and older today.
Additionally, the Alzheimer's Association estimates 10% of Americans age 65 and older suffer from the disease. In 2017, someone in the United States was diagnosed with Alzheimer's every 66 seconds. With 5.5 million Americans already diagnosed, by 2050, the population of Americans living with Alzheimer's could reach up to 16 million.
Fortunately, new research suggests cannabis may play an important role in the treatment of Alzheimer's and dementia patients across the globe. Understanding the link between marijuana and Alzheimer's is at the forefront of modern medical cannabis research.
What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, devastating brain disorder which affects the memory function, as well as, the ability to perform simple tasks in seniors. The disease causes slow death to neurons by excessive protein buildup called plaque. Sadly, symptoms may not appear for as much as 10 years after the onset of the disease, but it continues to spread and do damage to brain tissue, eventually causing death.
What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?
The exact cause of Alzheimer's disease remains a mystery, although medical experts believe the buildup of two compounds, amyloid plaque, and neurofibrillary tangles, are related to the development of the disease. Plaque accumulates in sticky clumps between the neurons in the brain, while tangles are formed by tau proteins. Both these lesions cause inflammation of the brain tissue surrounding them and eventually cause cell death.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's
Many overlook the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease because they are quite subtle at first, resembling the typical memory issues of busy minds and chaotic schedules. These symptoms can include:
- Misplacing everyday items
- Forgetting appointments, conversations, or names
- Struggling to find the right words
Once symptoms are apparent, pharmaceuticals only treat the symptoms of the disease, but cannot stop the spread of the disease or reverse the damage it causes. As the disease progresses, further symptoms develop like delusions, hallucinations, and behavioral changes. Unfortunately, the average life expectancy for an Alzheimer's patient is only eight to ten years and there is no known cure for the disease.
Marijuana and Alzheimer's
Fortunately, as the laws regarding cannabis continue to change across the United States and around the world, opening the doors to medical research, a new light is shining on the infamous herb. For many, this light may be a beacon of hope. While tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is most well known for the cerebral effects it causes, new research into the medical efficacy of THC suggests this misunderstood cannabinoid may actually help improve the quality of life for many seniors suffering from the degenerative disease. Ultimately, with further research THC could save millions of lives.
Scientists at Scripps Research Institute reported in 2006 that the cannabinoid, THC, inhibits amyloid plaque buildup by blocking the enzymes that produce them. Two years later, during a conference for the Society of Neuroscience in Washington, D.C. in 2008, researchers from the University of Ohio presented results from their study showing synthetic cannabis (Sativex) reduced inflammation and improved memory in older mice. Unfortunately, due to research restrictions on cannabis, human trials never followed.
However, in 2016 another group of researchers at the Salk Institute in California provided further evidence cannabis prevents toxic proteins associated with the development of Alzheimer's disease from accumulating. As a hallmark of the disease, increased production of amyloid beta proteins causes inflammation and increases the rate of cellular death in the brain. This study concluded THC reduced these proteins and decreased the resulting inflammation as well. In a press release in Science Daily, Salk Professor David Shubert stated, “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."
More recently, in May of 2017, another group of researchers at Germany's University of Bonn published their studies in Nature Medicine. This study concluded cannabinoid supplementation has promising capabilities to restore cognitive function in seniors suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Specifically, their results showed blocking certain cannabinoid receptors increased the aging process within the brain. Reintroducing the cannabinoid THC reversed some of the neuron damage.
In the study, researchers evaluated the performance of different groups of mice at various stages of life in a series of behavioral, cognitive, and memory tests. Because brain function declines with age, as expected, the older mice did not perform as well as the younger mice during the control phase. After dosing the mice with THC, researchers repeated the tests. Not surprisingly, the younger mice took longer to learn and complete the tasks while under the influence of THC. However, to the astonishment of the observers, the older mice's test results were similar to the younger mice prior to being dosed with THC! This suggests cannabis, specifically THC, may be able to not only treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's, but it may actually restore functionality in the brains of aging patients.
Upon completion of the study, the brains treated with THC were dissected and examined in hopes to understand how the compound worked to improve the function of the older rodents. Shockingly, neurons found in the hippocampus, part of the brain vital in learning and memory processes, actually grew more synaptic spines which ultimately improved the channels of communication between the neurons. These results suggest THC may, in fact, repair brain and neuron damage caused by Alzheimer's.
Laws: Marijuana and Cannabis
Fortunately, in modern times, the laws against cannabis and cannabis research are slowly starting to shift. To date, 30 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana recommendations for a wide variety of ailments. While medical cannabis applications are expanding rapidly, several states already recognize Alzheimer's disease as a qualifying condition for using the experimental drug.
Patients living in any of the following states can qualify for medical marijuana after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease:
– New Hampshire
– North Dakota
– Rhode Island
Despite being about 7 decades behind the curve on medical applications of the more than 400 active compounds found in the cannabis sativa plant, changing perspectives on the infamous herb continue to open doors to medical miracles not only for Alzheimer's patients but for a growing list of ailments. With further research and an ever-expanding reemergence of cannabis as a health and wellness supplement or remedy, cannabinoids may prove to be essential components for good health and longevity. As science continues to learn, marijuana and Alzheimer’s laws continue to change, and consumption loses its stigma across the nation, the future looks much brighter for individuals, and their loved ones, suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia, and cognitive decline.