Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that leads to memory loss and can seriously impair a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks. It affects more than five million Americans according to the National Institutes of Health, and is a leading cause of death. It is also the most common cause of dementia and its incidence is expected to triple during the next 50 years.
A recent study has scientists wondering if THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, could cure Alzheimer’s. The study found that THC is a catalyst for removing toxic plaque in the brain, and serves as an inflammation blocker; in each role, preventing common features of the neurodegenerative disease.
“It is reasonable to conclude that there is a therapeutic potential of cannabinoids for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,” David Schubert, senior researcher and a professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, wrote.
One supporter of Schubert’s research is Keith Fargo, the director of scientific programs for the Alzheimer’s Association. Fargo, too, acknowledges marijuana’s therapeutic potential for Alzheimer’s patients, calling the drug a “legitimate avenue of research.”
Fargo claimed that the most important part of Schubert’s study is that “it gives us a better understanding of the cannabinoid system” and how preventing nerve cell death could impede Alzheimer’s progression.
Dr. Donovan Maust is another medical researcher who has studied medical marijuana as a treatment for dementia.
An assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Maust called Schubert’s results “interesting,” but does not believe it is enough to begin using marijuana as a treatment for the disease.
“It is difficult to say what, if any, effect this might have in humans, even if it would successfully promote clearance of [plaque],” he said.
STUDIES AND PATIENT INTERVIEWS
Several studies and interviews have suggested that medical cannabis could aid in easing the behavioral symptoms, confusion, and agitation that someone with Alzheimer’s experiences. But, scientists are hoping to discover evidence that medical cannabis could serve as an effective preventative solution.
For Schubert, the lack of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease can be attributed to two things: the disease causes very complex damage to the brain and research is too narrowly focused. He sought to take a broader approach to Alzheimer’s research about 10 years ago, with a drug candidate he derived from curcumin, the main ingredient of turmeric. After extensive research, Schubert and his team found that their drug, J147, worked through the body’s endocannabinoid system, which told them that the drug had a cannabinoid-like effect.
This was motivation enough to begin investigating THC as a possible preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s. Schubert and his team found that THC prevents the accumulation of plaque and the death of nerve cells and stopped brain inflammation.
FEDERAL LAWS REGARDING CANNABIS ARE IMPEDING IN-DEPTH RESEARCH.
While Schubert would like to continue investigating cannabinoids, government regulations on marijuana research make doing so nearly impossible.
“It’s much harder than it should be to do research on medical marijuana and the cannabinoids it contains,” said Dr. David Casarett, a researcher at Duke University. Casarett believes that the best thing the government could due to improved medical marijuana research is to reclassify the plan as a Schedule II or III drug.