With 23 states having legalized its medical use, marijuana has gained a lot of positive recognition for its therapeutic benefits, such as treating inflammatory bowel disease, preventing and treating glaucoma, controlling epileptic seizures, and as recent studies suggest, slowing down Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a memory-robbing disease with an insidious onset that currently affects 5.2 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The cause of Alzheimers is not known, but scientists suspect it may have something to do with the build-up of the key pathological marker of the disease, beta-amyloid.
Beta-amyloid, a protein fragment found in most aging brains, destroys connections between nerve cells known as synapses, which are essential in helping us store memories.
Beta-amyloid molecules cluster into plaques in the spaces between nerve cells. Most people build up plaques and tangles as they age, but those with Alzheimer’s seem to build a lot more, and in a more predictable pattern – starting with cells that deal with memory function.
A study done at the University of South Florida showed that THC, an antioxidant and the most active compound in marijuana, may be of medicinal value for Alzheimer’s patients, especially those in the early stages.
The study showed that at low doses, THC decreased production of beta-amyloid and inhibited its aggregation in cell cultures, as well as, improved mitochondrial function.
Mitochondria supply cells with energy and become dysfunctional from early on in Alzheimer’s patients. Past research done by this team suggested that beta-amyloid impaired mitochondrial function with age.
Therefore, by reducing beta-amyloid production, THC improves mitochondrial function.
“Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Chuanhai Cao, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute. “Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future.”
This research is not the first of its kind. Scientists have been intrigued by marijuana’s healing properties for ages. A study done in 2006 by Kim Janda, PhD, director of the Worm Institute of Research and Medicine at Scripps Research Institute, showed that THC inhibited an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase (AChE), as well as, the beta-amyloid plaques that it makes.
AChE breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that becomes deficient in Alzheimer’s patients.
So does a puff a day keep the doctor away? Not necessarily, said co-author of the USF study, Neel Nabar.
“It’s important to keep in mind that just because a drug may be effective doesn’t mean it can be safely used by anyone,” said Nabar. “However, these findings may lead to the development of related compounds that are safe, legal, and useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Although the study showed that THC had therapeutic value, at higher doses it can cause memory impairment.
Cao’s team is currently studying the effects of a drug cocktail containing THC that will eventually be tested out on a genetically-engineered mouse model of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers are hopeful that THC’s anti-Alzheimer activity may aid in developing an effective treatment for the disease in the near future.