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Cannabis Effective Against Alzheimer’s Disease, New Study Finds

A new study shows that a major cannabinoid naturally found in cannabis effectively removes the plaque buildup in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Cannabis promotes the cellular removal of amyloid beta in the brain and could therefore be effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study has found.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that has been linked to the buildup of toxic protein fragments called plaques. The plaques, made up of amyloid-beta proteins, are dense, sticky clusters that sit between the neurons and interfere with cell communication and the delivery of nutrients, causing brain cells to die. Over time, the loss of brain cells leads to memory problems and eventually impairs the ability to carry out daily tasks. The disease affects over 4.5 million Americans.

In this study, Salk Institute Professor David Schubert and his team altered laboratory-grown human neurons to create the buildup of beta-amyloid protein plaques. They then subjected the neurons to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids naturally found in cannabis.

The researchers observed that the administration of THC caused the plaque to break down and reduced cell inflammation. Their findings were published in the June 2016 issue of Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.

“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,” Schubert, said in a statement.

Previous studies have also suggested the efficacy of cannabis for Alzheimer’s disease. In earlier research, both THC and the compound cannabidiol (CBD) were found to significantly reduce plaque buildup. They also were shown to protect brain cells by reducing inflammation and encouraging the birth of new cells.

Schubert and his team believe that THC was able to reduce protein buildup and inflammation through its interaction with the cannabinoid receptors located in the brain. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have been found to interact with these receptors with the goal of helping the body achieve homeostasis and equilibrium. THC attaches to both the cannabinoid receptor (CB) 1 and 2.

Why plaques develop in the first place is still unclear to scientists, but some research suggests that inflammation that develops in the brain could be related.

“Inflammation within the brain is a major component of the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it has always been assumed that this response was coming from immune-like cells in the brain, not the nerve cells themselves,” said Antonio Currais, one of the researchers. “When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”

Schubert and his team did emphasize that their findings were conducted in exploratory laboratory models, and stressed the importance of testing the efficacy of THC in clinical trials. Although current government regulations make researching cannabis in clinical trials difficult, with vocal support from scientists and lawmakers, officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency have said they are considering the removal of the barriers that are limiting research.