Early Lab Tests Show Cannabis Could Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

Preliminary studies conducted by scientists at the Salk Institute have produced the best evidence yet that cannabinoids – particularly Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – could have an important role to play in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study highlighted the role of THC in promoting the cellular removal of amyloid beta, a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s. The precise role of this protein in the progression of the disease is as yet unknown, however it is well known to accumulate in the brain before the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms, and is considered one of the tell tale warnings monitored by physicians  that suggest the disease is taking hold.

The scientists conducted this research on nerve cells which had been altered to produce high levels of amyloid beta. They discovered that exposing these nerve cells to THC reduced amyloid beta levels and eliminated the inflammatory response – caused by the protein – from the nerve cells, allowing those cells to survive.

In terms of finding a ‘cure’ for Alzheimer’s, or even a preventative, this research is still at a very early stage, and cannot as yet be considered ‘proof’ of anything. However the research is promising, and builds on the work of other scientists who have investigated the role of cannabinoids in Alzheimer’s progression.

“Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells,” said Salk Professor David Schubert, the senior author of the paper.

Back in 2014, neuroscientists at the University of South Florida were the first to discover that – at least in cell models, in a laboratory environment – low doses of THC seem to prevent the build up of amyloid beta in nerve cells.

“Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.” said lead author Chuanhai Cao, PhD, at the time. “Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future.”

Both sets of researchers are keen to point out that this research is preliminary, and certainly should not be taken as proof that smoking weed can cure Alzheimer’s, although I’m sure those headlines will appear before long if they haven’t already.

Despite this, however, the research is worth getting at least a little bit excited about. Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the most common and deadly diseases in the world, and yet it is one about which we know very little. There is currently no way of treating the disease, despite the fact that in 2015 an estimated 48 million people were living with its highly debilitating symptoms worldwide, and in 2010 it was the cause of around 486,000 deaths. The life expectancy of someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease is three to nine years.

Clearly then it is an area of medicine which urgently needs more research, especially as incidences of the disease are expected to triple over the next 50 years. This will doubtless cause huge suffering, but also huge costs. This research is heartening then, and could in the future lead to new hope that we might be able to finally get to grips with this disease. But until more research – and crucially clinical trials – are conducted, celebrations will have to be put on hold.

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