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Can Cannabis Defend Against Neurodegenerative Diseases?

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Is Medical Cannabis Beneficial for Neurodegenerative Disorders?

Anyone who has had to endure the heartbreaking helplessness of watching someone they care about lose a health battle understands the desperate hope for new treatment options. This is especially true in the case of neurodegenerative diseases, which often lead to memory loss, confusion, mobility and balance issues, and so many more life-altering symptoms that compound as the disease progresses.

So, if cannabis were a potential treatment option, wouldn’t you want your loved one to have access to it? Unfortunately, highly restrictive classification at a federal level in the U.S. and beyond has left the plant highly under-researched when it comes to its therapeutic potential.

However, the handful of studies that have managed to get through that red tape have had positive findings that show cannabis could potentially help prevent – or at least slow the progression – of some of the worst symptoms of some of the most common neurodegenerative conditions.

What Causes Neurodegenerative Diseases?

Before we go any further, let’s put a little background to this research. Neurodegenerative diseases encompass a long list of chronic conditions, many of which are genetic and all of which ultimately cause a continued decline in overall health over time.

There is no one specific cause of degenerative nerve disease. While some may have a clear-cut explanation, like a traumatic brain injury, and others may be predicted by genetic factors, others have no explanation at all.

Known risk factors include age, genetics, or environmental factors such as pollution, toxins, and chemical exposures. Some neurodegenerative conditions have also been linked to habits like diet, alcohol consumption, or tobacco and drug use.

What Are Examples of Neurodegenerative Diseases?

Some neurodegenerative conditions are better known than others – after all, almost everyone has heard of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, some are less common and even less understood, like Huntington’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Other neurodegenerative diseases include:

  • Multiple system atrophy
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Ataxia

Studies Suggest Cannabis Has Therapeutic Potential for Many Neurodegenerative Conditions

While there haven’t been significant research or clinical trials in any of the conditions above, there is enough research on the conditions, the plant, and the brain to have an understanding of where cannabis has therapeutic potential.

Does Cannabis Prevent Neurodegenerative Diseases?

As of this writing, there have been a handful of studies that suggest that cannabis could have the potential to prevent, slow down, or even reverse the effects of certain neurodegenerative diseases. Of course, these studies are preliminary, and further research is necessary to confirm any of these findings – but for the millions suffering and their families, it's a glimmer of hope.

So far, these studies have mostly looked at Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, as these are two of the most well-known, well-funded, and well-researched conditions.

Science Breakdown: The Endocannabinoid System and the Brain

If you didn’t already know, our bodies react to cannabis the way they do because they have an internal system (like the digestive system, nervous system, and all those others we learned about in school!) that produces “endocannabinoids.”

Introducing: The Endocannabinoid System! A network of receptors known as CB1 and CB2 is found throughout our bodies and even inside our brains.

Essentially, that means we produce cannabinoids too – and just as many conditions are due to a chemical imbalance or deficiency in our brains or bodies, we’re learning the same can happen if we aren’t producing enough endocannabinoids.

Introducing external cannabinoids like THC and CBD can potentially restore this balance, which may help to regulate or improve a number of bodily functions including: sleep, mood, appetite, memory, reproduction/fertility, and more.

Knowing this, researchers have been studying how cannabinoids like THC and CBD interact with the endocannabinoid receptors in our brains and whether these interactions could benefit neurodegenerative diseases.

Could Cannabis Treat Alzheimer’s Disease?

A study published in 2022 found significant evidence that certain chemicals in the cannabis plant (cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) have neuroprotective properties that could potentially directly protect against amyloid β, which is a plaque that forms in the brain and is the primary known cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

An observational study the same year found improved symptoms, fewer additional medications, and less assistance required by dementia patients given 12-24 mg of CBD daily for a little over a year.

Can Cannabis Control Parkinson’s Symptoms?

In 2020 a review of 14 different studies found evidence that medical cannabis could reduce numerous symptoms of Parkinon’s disease including anxiety, tremors and involuntary or erratic movements while a 2017 study found treatment improved multiple symptoms without causing major adverse effects.

New Studies Go Beyond THC and CBD: The Therapeutic Potential of CBN

Over the last few decades researchers have discovered one of the causes of cell death in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and similar conditions is due to something called oxytosis, or oxidative cell death characterized by calcium-dependent nerve death. Decades later, an almost identical except iron-dependent condition causing nerve death was discovered and called ferroptosis.

The latest study on cannabis's therapeutic potential in neurodegenerative conditions decided to look at how cannabinoids could play a part in the treatment of oxytosis and ferroptosis rather than only as a tool for the management of symptoms.

Interestingly, the researchers not only looked at THC and CBD as you might expect but also took a special interest in CBN, or cannabinol. During this process they dug deeper, separating four different CBN analogs (variants like delta-8-THC vs delta-9 or delta-10), to see if one analog was more beneficial than another.

CBN Could Protect Against Oxidative Cell Death

In doing this, they discovered that CBN has neuroprotective qualities. What this means is that unlike THC and CBD, which bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, causing their therapeutic or psychoactive effects, CBN specifically targets the mitochondria and actively assists in maintaining mitochondrial homeostasis.

More simply put, CBN helps cells maintain normal cell functioning and protects the mitochondria from oxytosis and/or ferroptosis.

“Not only does CBN have neuroprotective properties, but its derivatives have the potential to become novel therapeutics for various neurological disorders,” principal investigator at the the Salk Institute and the study’s senior researcher Pamela Maher, PhD, stated in a press release. “We were able to pinpoint the active groups in CBN that are doing that neuroprotection, then improve them to create derivative compounds that have greater neuroprotective ability and drug-like efficacy.”

By isolating different CBN analogs, researchers were able to find that certain analogs were more effective than others, though all showed potential benefits in protecting against oxidative cell death. What they found could lead to developing CBN based treatments for many neurodegenerative diseases and numerous other conditions including cancer.

Wrap-Up: Does Cannabis Benefit Neurodegenerative Diseases?

In many places, especially states in the U.S. where medical marijuana is legal, these studies have been enough evidence for doctors to feel confident recommending this alternative treatment option, often alongside FDA-approved treatments as needed.

Many states specifically list Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, Huntington’s, and more as qualifying conditions – there’s a reason for that. Anecdotal evidence may not be scientific fact but regardless, patients are finding relief from neurodegenerative diseases around the world through medical cannabis.

Of course, this isn’t medical advice – you should always discuss your treatment options with your doctor or healthcare provider! But if you’re considering medical marijuana as an alternative or additional treatment for a neurodegenerative disease, know you’re not alone, and the evidence is on your side.

Julia Granowicz-Johnson is a founder, copywriter, and journalism blogger with a passion for the cannabis plant and its uses in personal wellness and medicine. She advocates for the reform of cannabis laws around the globe through her writing and aims to bring attention to the negative impacts that prohibition has left in its wake.