Alzheimer’s affects more than 5.5 million Americans, and their closest friends and family who see the deterioration first-hand. Family members often have to resort to leaving their family members who suffer from Alzheimer’s in the care of nursing home staff. Currently approved medication targets dysfunction in the brain and is often paired with other medication that treat behavioral changes associated with this disease.
Despite a trove of anecdotal evidence and promising scientific research into the effects of cannabis on Alzheimer’s, federal law makes it nearly impossible to develop a cure for this illness. Cannabinoids, nonetheless, have proved effective at delaying the progression of Alzheimer’s.
The Cholinergic System and Alzheimer’s
Our cholinergic system is a complex network of nerve cells in the brain that use acetylcholine (Ach) as its main neurotransmitter to relay information to the body. Ach plays an important role in the formation of memory, the ability to learn, and neuroplasticity. Patients with Alzheimer’s experienced an abnormally low amount of Ach which contributes to the typical symptoms. Current medications target the cholinergic system, specifically acetylcholinesterase (AChE), since it is responsible for the degradation of Ach.
Cannabis Inhibits Amyloid Plaque Buildup
Alzheimer’s primary pathological cause is amyloid plaque formation in the brain. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) inhibited amyloid plaque buildup more effectively than currently prescribed medications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. THC acts on the enzyme acetylcholinesterase AChE by inhibiting it, thereby, preventing it from reducing Ach. The AChE enzyme is responsible for the rapid formation of the plaque that contributes to cognitive deterioration.
Cannabis Reduces Plaque-Related Inflammation
Apart from plaque aggregation, Alzheimer’s is also coupled with chronic inflammation in the brain. Inflammation, anywhere in the body, is a natural immunological response to defend itself against foreign substances like viruses and cancer cells. When the inflammation persists, it risks damaging otherwise healthy cells which can progress the neurodegenerative disease.
A 2006 study in Neuroscience showed that the activation of cannabinoid receptors, specifically CB1, brought on an anti-inflammatory response. Another study in 2012 found that animal models born without CB1 receptors saw a drastically faster rate of cognitive deterioration. Essentially, these studies prove that our endocannabinoid system is partly responsible for mediating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Cannabis Protects and Creates Brain Cells
THC isn’t the only cannabinoid that has been found to treat biological and psychological symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. Cannabidiol (CBD) has shown promising results when used to treat amyloid buildup toxicity. The Journal of Neurochemistry published a report that showed the neuroprotective, anti-oxidative, and anti-apoptotic effects against the plaque toxicity. A 2009 report acknowledged that an entourage effect between tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD can protect the brain from neurotoxic agents that lead to many neurodegenerative disorders.
Alzheimer’s not only affects someone’s ability to form memories or learn, but it also prevents them from leading normal lives. From not feeling hungry to feelings of agitation, Alzheimer’s patients need assistance with everyday situations. Cannabis can provide relief for these ancillary responses to neural degeneration, along with slowing down the progression of this insidious disease.