Scientists Discover How Cannabis Slows Alzheimer’s Disease

Clumps of protein known as beta-amyloid plaque are a key trait of Alzheimer’s and contribute to the progression and symptoms of the disease. New evidence points to a unique role of marijuana in removing this plaque from the brain. – Previous studies suggest a role of cannabis in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s and now scientists can explain why.

Researchers at the Roskamp Institute in Florida have shown for the first time how cannabinoids – the active chemicals in marijuana – are able to reduce the build-up of a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

For long, scientists have linked the loss of cell and brain tissue in Alzheimer’s to abnormal structures called beta-amyloid (Aβ) plaque. Levels of plaque in a patient’s brain can even predict the severity of symptoms and tissue damage suffered.

Published last week in the Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience journal, the new findings reveal how cannabinoids reverse the build-up of plaque in Alzheimer’s by expelling it from the brain.

The team, led by Corbin Bachmeier, Ph.D, explains that Alzheimer’s is not a result of abnormal production of the plaque, but “the result of impaired Aβ clearance from the brain.”

Their results suggest that chemicals in marijuana can aid the plaque in crossing the blood-brain barrier, a process that allows plaque levels to be kept low in healthy people. Previous studies show that this process is blocked in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

While this study was the first to identify this unique function of cannabinoids, it confirms the results of prior research linking the chemicals to a reduction in both plaque levels and Alzheimer’s symptoms.

dr. tim karl
Dr. Tim Karl, like most neuroscientists, works mostly with rodent models

What’s more, others suggest cannabinoids have a variety of effects that could be helpful in treating the disorder.
Earlier this year, Tim Karl, Ph.D, a senior investigator at Neuroscience Research Australia who was not involved with the current study, found that mice with Alzheimer’s experienced dramatic improvements in memory after treatment with cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD is one of over 60 cannabinoids found in marijuana and has captured the attention of researchers due to its lack of psychoactive effects.

“It basically brings the performance of the animals back to the level of healthy animals,” Karl told Sydney Morning Herald.

“You could say it cured them, but we will have to go back and look at their brains to be sure.”

Earlier studies point to the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids as useful in Alzheimer’s.

Gary Wenk, Ph.D, a professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, was one of the first scientists to suggest this.

“I’ve been trying to find a drug that will reduce brain inflammation and restore cognitive function in rats for over 25 years; cannabinoids are the first and only class of drugs that have ever been effective,” he told Time Magazine.

He believes that stigma still hinders marijuana-based medicine from being widely accepted, but is hopeful that things will change.

“I think that the perception about this drug is changing and in the future people will be less fearful.”

Alzheimer’s disease continues to be a leading cause of disability among the growing population of seniors. Without a breakthrough in treatment, the number of Alzheimer’s cases are expected to triple over the next 50 years.

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