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Medical Marijuana and Parkinson’s Disease

By on April 20, 2013

Summary (click to view)

  • Parkinson’s disease mostly affects the senior population
  • Parkinson’s disease is caused by the death of dopamine cells
  • Current treatments cannot slow the progression of the disorder
  • Medical marijuana is known for its antioxidant properties and its ability to protect brain cells
  • Medical marijuana can also increase dopamine levels in the brain
  • 50% of Parkinson’s patients who use medical marijuana say that it helps
  • TruthOnPot.com – Parkinson’s disease has been recognized since ancient times and remains highly prevalent among today’s elderly population.

    And while modern treatment of Parkinson’s largely depends on pharmaceutical medications such as L-DOPA, doctors have recommended the use of medical marijuana for Parkinson’s disease as far back as the 19th Century.

    Today, a significant portion of patients continue to find medical marijuana to be an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease, despite its limited availability. A survey published in 2004 found that 25% of patients at the Prague Movement Disorder Centre have tried medical marijuana with nearly half of them experiencing benefits.

    What is Parkinson’s Disease?

    Writing sample of a patient with Parkinson’s disease. Image source

    Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system caused by progressive death of dopamine cells. Parkinson’s disease mostly affects individuals over 50, although 10% of patients develop symptoms at a younger age. Major symptoms of this disorder include motor impairments – such as shaking, tremors, slow movement and difficulty with walking – as well as symptoms of dementia, sensory dysfunction, sleep disorders, emotional problems and neuropathic pain.

    Although motor symptoms typically occur prior to diagnosis, the progression of Parkinson’s disease is suspected to begin much earlier, since symptoms only appear after 70% of dopamine neurons have already died.

    Furthermore, while dopamine replacement therapies seem to be effective in reducing overall symptoms, treatments that slow the progression of the dopamine cell death have yet to be developed. As a result, researchers have begun to investigate compounds that may be able to protect neurons from death, leading them to take a closer look at medical marijuana.

    How Can Marijuana Help?

    Cannabinoid receptors are found in many parts of the brain, including areas involved with dopamine release. Likewise, studies show that cannabinoids such as THC can act to temporarily increase dopamine levels, suggesting a direct benefit for patients with Parkinson’s.

    Interestingly, studies that have investigated activity of the endocannabinoid system in Parkinson’s disease reveal a number of irregularities. In fact, both animals and humans with Parkinson’s seem to possess elevated levels of endocannabinoids – cannabinoids produced naturally by the human body, such as anandamide and 2-AG. A study published in 2010 found that Parkinson’s patients had twice the amount of endocannabinoids than healthy individuals, leading experts to believe that the endocannabinoid system may play a role in the body’s defense against the disorder. This is also supported by other studies which have found increased activity of CB1 receptors in animal models of Parkinson’s disease.

    Based on these findings, researchers have studied the effects of cannabinoids on specific symptoms of the disorder and have identified a number of positive results. In particular, studies show that cannabinoids are able to reduce many of the major symptoms associated with the disorder, including motor impairments, tremors and neuron degeneration.

    The role of cannabinoids in protecting neurons from degeneration has been one of the primary focuses of medical research, since current therapies have yet to combat this aspect of the disease. Cannabinoids are highly regarded for their antioxidant and neuroprotective properties, which scientists believe may have a direct application in slowing the progression of Parkinson’s.

    So far, studies have found both marijuana-derived cannabinoids – including THC and CBD – and synthetic cannabinoids to be effective in protecting dopamine neurons from damage in animal models of Parkinson’s. Furthermore, a study published in 2012 involving THC and human cell cultures revealed similar protective effects, providing even stronger evidence of medical marijuana’s potential in protecting patients with Parkinson’s from the neurotoxic effects of the disorder.

    What This Means For Your Health

    According to the 2004 survey, patients say that medical marijuana helps them to deal with a various of Parkinson’s symptoms, including slowed movement, muscle rigidity and tremors. Interestingly, patients also report more relief when using marijuana over an extended period of time.

    “The late onset of cannabis action is noteworthy – because most patients reported that improvement occurred approximately two months after the first use of cannabis, it is very unlikely that it could be attributed to a placebo reaction.”

    Excerpt from Survey on cannabis use in Parkinson’s disease: Subjective improvement of motor symptoms (2004)

    But despite strong anecdotal and pre-clinical evidence of medical marijuana’s usefulness in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, clinical trials have yet to be conducted. As a result, doctors lack standardized guidelines for administering medical marijuana to patients, which has prevented most health professionals from even considering this alternative form of treatment.

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