As a culture, we tend to love “quick fixes”: From “six-minute abs!” to “how to get rich quick without really trying” to the endless marketing of the new nutraceutical of the day that will help us effortlessly shed body fat, or whatever it is.
There is a clear bias towards hype.
The field of medicine is no exception. Being aware of the human tendency towards “quick fixes” can be helpful (and grounding) when evaluating statements made around new developments in health and medicine.
Even when it comes to the therapeutically versatile plant cannabis, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted when it comes to the claims of its medical potential.
One area in particular that has been gaining an increasing amount of attention in the media is how cannabis may help neurodegenerative disease.
So let’s separate hype from fact and look at what we actually know.
Characteristics of Neurodegenerative Disease
There are many different kinds of neurodegenerative diseases out there. The “Big 3” are Alzheimers, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and Parkinson’s Disease, but there are many, many others. In each condition, progressive damage occurs (in distinct ways) to various parts of the brain.
But despite the differences, two important commonalities run among them:
- Brain Inflammation floods sensitive neuron cells with damaging free radicals. In Alzheimer’s, the inflammation destroys proteins, causing them to misfold and aggregate beta-amyloid plaques. In MS, it also breaks down fatty membranes like myelin.
- Neuronal Cell Death occurs when cells become highly damaged, creating the progressive loss of certain brain functions.
If cannabis is going to play any generalized role in managing neurodegenerative diseases, it will have to address two factors: inflammation and neuroprotection.
Cannabis and Inflammation
Cannabis’ potency as an anti-inflammatory agent is the basis for many of its medically viable uses. Its anti-inflammatory actions are primarily mediated via the CB2 receptor, which is distributed throughout the body, including immune and glial cells. Glial cells are the support cells of the brain, surrounding each and every neuron to support, nourish, and protect these highly specialized function.
Cannabis and Neuroprotection
Many cannabinoids (the active chemical compounds in marijuana), and CBD, in particular, have some compelling neuroprotective properties; although the exact mechanisms of action are not yet fully understood. However, scientists believe some of their ability comes from the cannabinoids themselves acting as antioxidants. In some studies, it seems to simply prevent cell death in situations that would normally cause neurons to die.
In one study by the highly prestigious Salk Institute, THC was found to actually break up beta-amyloid plaques, resulting in less neuronal cell death.
Cannabis and Neurodegenerative Disease: Theory and Practice
Clearly, there is potential here. Peer-reviewed, scientific research shows that cannabis modulates the underlying mechanisms that drive neurodegenerative disease. There is no doubt about it.
All of this impressive research, however, has been done in lab cultures and animal models. There is almost no data to show whether or not cannabis has a real healing effect in humans.
Nonetheless, we can draw inspiration from compelling anecdotal stories of people improving their conditions. Likewise, we can make inferences based on our understanding of biochemistry and neuroscience; we can connect differently related dots, but before we can draw any firm conclusions, the frustratingly common caveat is appropriate: more research is needed.