In the United States, as many as 5.1 million people are diagnosed with the debilitating brain disorder known as Alzheimer's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Alzheimer's disease often leads to memory loss and can damage a person's ability to perform daily tasks. This disease is also the most common cause of dementia.
Although there is still no known cure for this devastating illness, scientists have not lost hope for finding an effective treatment. In fact, past studies have attempted to look into how substances such as medical marijuana could possibly affect the disease.
Now, new research may help in the development of treatment: scientists found that several compounds in marijuana can actually help remove amyloid beta, a toxic plaque associated with Alzheimer's.
Elimination Of Amyloid Beta
Amyloid beta accumulates within the nerve cells of the aging brain before the emergence of Alzheimer's symptoms and plaques. While amyloid beta is a hallmark of Alzheimer's, scientists have yet to understand its precise role, as well as the role of the plaques it forms in the disease.
In the new study, researchers at the Salk Institute in California recreated parts of Alzheimer's through nerve cell modification in a laboratory setting. They discovered that high levels of amyloid beta were linked with cellular inflammation and higher chances of neuron death.
When the nerve cells that produced high levels of amyloid beta were exposed to a component in marijuana called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the amyloid beta proteins were reduced and the inflammatory response was eliminated. This allowed the nerve cells to survive.
Antonio Currais, first author of the paper describing the investigation, said that when they were able to identify the molecular basis of the response to amyloid beta, it was evident that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells themselves make may be involved in the protection of nerve cells.
THC, a molecule similar to endocannabinoids, cause the psychoactive effects of marijuana. Endocannabinoids are lipid molecules produced by the body for intercellular signaling in the brain.
Past research has shown that because physical activity can allow the body to produce endocannabinoids, exercise may help slow the progression of Alzheimer's.
Meanwhile, Professor David Schubert, senior author of the study, warned that their findings were only conducted in exploratory laboratory models. He says the use of THC-like compounds in therapy has yet to be investigated in clinical trials.
The findings of the study are published in the journal NPJ: Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.