According to brain experts, cannabis holds promise as a treatment for the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but federal regulators are blocking the path to a cure. Recent discoveries, along with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in some states, have brought calls for reforms in the laws that regulate cannabis research.
Researchers found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other compounds in the cannabis plant can help the body remove amyloid beta, the toxic plaque protein linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. The protein causes inflammation and kills neuron cells, causing deterioration of memory.
Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California are finding that marijuana extracts may help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease. Cannabinoids are compounds found in marijuana, which can have medical applications. One study indicated that cannabinoids can relieve amyloid protein buildup and cell damage related to dementia using some of the brain’s own protective measures.
Unlike methods which seek to remove amyloid buildup from the outside of brain cells (such as those currently being explored by pharmaceutical companies), the method explored by Salk researchers works with the brain’s natural endocannabanoids to fight amyloid buildup inside cells, along with the resulting inflammation and cell death, at an earlier stage in the disease.
Endocannabinoids can active switches called receptors in the brain cells. Researchers found that these THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may help protect cells from dying.
Physical activity increases the production of endocannabinoids, which may explain why exercise can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. THC from cannabis is similar in activity to endocannabinoids, and can activate the same receptors.
Marijuana is legal in California, but because the Salk Institute accepts some federal funding, it must abide by federal rules that require approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for any cannabis studies. The DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug, alongside heroin and other dangerous drugs, impeding research that may help treat Alzheimer’s and dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. The bureaucratic approval process can slow down research by months or years. Some observers think that the pharmaceutical industry is creating regulatory obstructions for researchers because cannabis is a natural product and cannot be patented.
Health researchers estimate that one in three seniors will die with dementia. Someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease every 66 seconds. In addition to the loss of longevity and quality of life, the financial costs of Alzheimer’s and dementia are significant.
A 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health found that the price of late stage dementia exceeds that of any other disease; a recent estimate of cost was $236 billion for 2016, or around $287,000 annually per person.
Alzheimer’s affects more than five million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, and is a leading cause of death. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. The number of people with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple during the next 50 years.
For more information on Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit the Guide To Long Term Care.