Approximately 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative cognitive condition that is part of a class of disorders called dementias. On average, an American develops Alzheimer’s disease every 68 seconds, and the rate is increasing dramatically. For the victims of this disease and their loved ones, answers are not always easy to come by. Although considered a controversial treatment option, medical cannabis – more specifically, the chemical compounds known as cannabinoids – may hold the keys in Alzheimer’s treatment.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Commonly associated with the aging process, Alzheimer’s disease was first diagnosed in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. This disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that damages brain cells in the human body, eventually leading to certain factors like memory loss, ability to grasp complex thoughts, and certain other brain functions. The disease develops slowly, then begins to take its toll as brain cells are destroyed. Brain function declines in the affected person until death.
Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease typically include:
- Behavioral changes, including abrupt mood swings
- Confusion about events, both current and in the past
- Memory loss
- Difficulty in remembering/retaining new information
- Difficulties in speaking and/or swallowing
- Loss of mobility in the later stages of the disease progression
The disease is complex, and no one drug has been successful in treating it. Certain prescription drugs known as cholinesterase inhibitors may alleviate some of the symptoms and control others, particularly behavioral changes. Over time, and as the disease progresses, these drugs begin to lose their effectiveness. While there are other drugs associated with the disease and its treatment, medical researchers are scrambling to find additional solutions.
Medical Cannabis and Alzheimer’s Treatment
Medical research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and its treatment has been ongoing for decades. Certain advances have been made, especially in identifying chemical compounds and medications that can help slow the disease progression as well as to control some of its cognitive symptoms. One of these advances has been the discovery that a certain class of chemical compounds found in cannabis – compounds known as cannabinoids – may prove beneficial to those struggling with the disease.
There are hundreds of active chemical compounds in cannabis. Some of these compounds are poorly understood, while others have had more rigorous investigation associated with them. The two compounds of interest to those conducting Alzheimer’s treatment research are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These compounds can bind to receptors found in the human body – receptors that form part of the human endocannabinoid system. CBD has been shown in medical studies to reduce inflammation and to control pain for certain medical conditions. THC is psychoactive; in other words, it is the chemical that produces the “high” or the characteristic sensations of euphoria sought after by recreational users. In a preclinical study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that small doses of THC may have specific benefits to those afflicted with the disease. In the study, THC was shown to slow the production of beta-amyloid proteins, the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. By slowing the production of these proteins, which are believed to contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s, disease progression can be lessened, allowing patients using THC doses to maintain cognitive abilities longer than in patients receiving other medications. This was a preliminary study, and further investigation is warranted.
In addition to aiding in reducing the cognitive impacts of Alzheimer’s Disease, cannabis has been proven to be a beneficial treatment for some of the auxiliary symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including depression, anxiety, and changes in sleep patterns such as insomnia.
CBD: Supporting Neurological Damage Reversal
Clinical studies investigating THC as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment regimen have also discovered that cannabidiol, or CBD, may also have beneficial effects. A study conducted in the 2000s and concluded in 2014 showed that CBD, one of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids found in medical cannabis, could alleviate some of the other symptoms associated with the disease progression. In fact, CBD was shown in the study to not only reduce mood swings and other behavioral changes in Alzheimer’s patients but could slow the rate of memory loss. The study suggests that CBD may actually reverse some of the brain cell damage occurring as the disease progresses through a process known as neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons). CBD has also been shown in limited studies to help to support the body’s endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is partially responsible for the transmission of nerve signals, and it is this system that serves to regulate many of the functions of the human body.
Controversies Surrounding Medical Cannabis in Alzheimer’s Treatment
Although preliminary research is promising – demonstrating the benefits and potential of cannabis as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease – there are two controversies surrounding this alternative.
The first controversy centers on two medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These two approved medicines, dronabinol and nabilone, are both synthetically-derived forms of THC. Commonly prescribed to treat nausea, such as from chemotherapy, these drugs often come with several unpleasant side effects as well as concerns about abuse potential. Because of this, many members of the medical community are wary of these medications. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) and other organizations have come out against the use of dronabinol and nabilone. Unfortunately, medical cannabis – the naturally-derived plant material and concentrates – have been unfairly lumped in with their synthetic counterparts.
The second controversy is based on the limited testing and clinical trials of medical cannabis. In the current atmosphere, getting trials approved for cannabis has been difficult at best; much of the current research is incomplete or has suffered from small test groups, poorly-designed studies, or a combination of several related factors. It is clear that further research is needed; large-scale studies and rigorously-controlled testing conditions may make the exact mechanism of action and efficacy clearer for Alzheimer’s treatment. Alzheimer’s patients and their families welcome investigation into natural, effective alternatives, and medical cannabis shows real promise in helping patients overcome their diseases.