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Medical cannabis has potential as Alzheimer’s treatment, study says

“My father started growing very quiet as Alzheimer’s started claiming more of him,” said Patti Davis, who watched her father, former President Ronald Reagan, disappear as a result of the disease. “The early stages of Alzheimer’s are the hardest because that person is aware that they’re losing awareness. And I think that that’s why my father started growing more and more quiet.”

Although experts aren’t sure, Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative form of dementia caused by significant brain damage, could be caused by toxic plaque that blocks messaging between cells and triggering inflammation that destroys disabled neuron cells in the brain.

Alzheimer’s Symptoms

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s progressively worsen as the disease progresses, and can include:

  • Confusion
  • Memory loss that interrupts daily life
  • Difficulty with problem solving or planning
  • Problems completing familiar tasks
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New or worsening trouble with vocabulary, speaking or writing
  • Misplacing items or putting items in strange places
  • Decreased judgement
  • Withdrawal from social or work activities
  • Changes in personality
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

The currently medical treatments for Alzheimer’s – including a plethora of different prescription drugs – can delay the onset of the disease by removing toxic plaque in the brain that has been linked to the devastating form of dementia.

Still, there is no definitive cure for the disease.

Cannabis for Alzheimer’s Treatments

Several studies, including one in 2006 and one 10 years later that echoes the results, suggest that THC, one of the cannabinoids in marijuana, helps treat Alzheimer’s in two ways, first by stimulating the removal of toxic plaque, and secondly, blocking inflammation that is associated with damage to the neurons in the brain that send and receive signals.

“It is reasonable to conclude that there is a therapeutic potential of cannabinoids for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,” wrote David Schubert, senior researcher and a professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, regarding the 2016 study.

Still, not all cases of Alzheimer’s are associated with toxic plaque, making efforts to treat the disease that much more difficult.

Initially, Schubert began studying the benefits of curcumin, the power-packed antioxidant in turmeric. Curcumin, or the stronger, lab-derived version Schubert created, works in the endocannabinoid system, leading the researchers to instead turn their attention to marijuana.

What Schubert’s research did do was bring more attention to the cannabinoid system of the brain, said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, which funded some of Schubert’s study. A better understanding of how medical marijuana and its compounds can protect brain cells not only helps researchers better understand that protecting neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients can slow the progress of the disease, it’s a big step toward finding a definitive cure.

Despite the lack of information regarding Alzheimer’s, medical marijuana has its place, even if research has yet to determine exactly what causes the degenerative form of dementia.

Dr. Gary L. Wenk is a leading authority on the consequences of chronic brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. He has spent years investigating whether smoking marijuana can prevent both normal age-related memory loss and that caused by Alzheimer’s. He found that medical marijuana can help protecting our precious memories as we age by reducing inflammation and encouraging the production of new neurons.

“Ordinarily, we do not view marijuana as being good for our brain and certainly not for making memories,” Wenk observes. “How could a drug that clearly impairs memory while people are under its sway protect their brains from the consequences of aging? The answer likely has everything to do with the way that young and old brains function and a series of age-related changes in brain chemistry. When we are young, stimulating the brain’s marijuana receptors interfere with making memories. However, later in life, the brain gradually displays increasing evidence of inflammation and a dramatic decline in the production of new neurons, called neurogenesis, that are important for making new memories.”

A 2014 study from the Netherlands found that THC was also effective in treating the behavioral symptoms associated with dementia, including agitation and aggression and irritability.

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