By Alice Blunt

It’s long been known that cannabis has powerful qualities that can treat a variety of medical ailments from migraines to aches and pains. Many may be surprised to learn, however, that cannabis is even being used to treat diseases associated with dementia and aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and the results so far show promise.

Cannabis More Effective Than Alzheimer’s Drugs in Test Tube Study

It’s been more than ten years since Tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC, the key component in marijuana –was discovered to have properties effective in assisting in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.  In 2006, the lab of Kim Janda, PhD, director of the Worm Institute of Research and Medicine at Scripps Research Institute, found that THC blocks the formation of detrimental, brain-clogging plaques far more effectively than already-approved Alzheimer’s drugs did.  

The team found that THC blocked the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, a component that speeds the formation of amyloid plaque in the brains of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The drugs known as Aricept and Cognex also work by blocking acetylcholinesterase in the brain. However, when the lab tested THC’s efficacy at blocking acetylcholinesterase against the efficacy of Aricept and Cognex, the results were eye-opening.  When tested with a double concentration of THC, Aricept blocked plaque formation only 22% as well as the THC did. The drug Cognex fared even worse and blocked plaque formation only 7% as well as THC. The researchers concluded that THC may provide a worthwhile treatment to waylay both the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

CBD Also Packs a Strong Medicinal Punch

Not only has THC shown promise in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, but CBD or cannabidiol, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid in cannabis, has displayed properties hinting that it may be effective in treating the disease as well.  CBD’s superpower, if you will, is in preventing cell death. In several studies in the 2000s, researchers made note of CBD’s neuroprotective and antioxidative properties.  This means CBD could reduce neurotoxicity caused by amyloid buildup in the brain, which is a feature of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers noted that CBD – whether administered alone or in combination with THC – was “rare” in its capability to offer neuroprotection via its unique combination of properties.

Pursing Cannabis-based Dementia Treatment in the UK

Fast forward to 2019.  In February of this year, a research team at King’s College, London, announced that they were launching a Phase 2 trial of a cannabis-based therapy for the treatment of dementia symptoms.  The treatment is called Sativex and is already approved in the UK for muscle stiffness in people with multiple sclerosis. Sativex is a mouth spray with a peppermint flavor that contains equal amounts of THC and CBD.  

Treatments for individuals with Alzheimer’s typically focus on elements of the brain, but Sativex’s aim is to calm symptoms of agitation that also frequently accompany the disease.  As caretakers know, episodes of agitation and aggression can make caring for people with the disease them challenging.

Researchers plan to investigate whether Sativex’s administration method makes it a practical treatment for people experiencing these symptoms.  That is, will a caretaker be able to place medication into the mouth of a patient who is in a distressed state? Of course, researchers also need to learn whether Sativex is, in fact, effective at reducing Alzheimer’s symptoms such as agitation, but further, larger studies will likely be needed to fully answer this second question.

Not Much Positive Research for Alzheimer’s … Particularly in the United States

Despite decades of Alzheimer’s research, the track record for promising results in this area is not good.  A study of Alzheimer’s clinical trials from 2002 to 2012 found a failure rate of 99.6%. The last Alzheimer’s medication to come out of clinical trials, memantine, was approved in Europe in 2002 and in the United States in 2003.  This may be why researchers are excited to explore more of what cannabis can offer for treatment in this area.

The fact that cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the United States Federal Government seriously hampers medical research in the US, so it’s heartening to hear that research is being conducted in other parts of the world in an effort to help those diagnosed with this disease.  In fact, cannabis has been shown to treat symptoms associated with many diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, stress disorders, sleep disorders, MS, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, anorexia, and diabetes. One can only hope that more research on the special properties of cannabis will continue to help people struggling with these health concerns and others.

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