How Marijuana Treats Alzheimer's Disease

September 21st 2015

Alzheimer's disease affects more than five million people in the U.S. It is the sixth leading cause of death, and the only one in the top 10 that is not preventable or curable, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And while scientists have yet to develop a cure for the degenerative disease, research has shown that marijuana might be an effective treatment option for Alzheimer's patients.

What does marijuana do to Alzheimer's disease?

It works on multiple levels. First, THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis, slows the buildup of neural plaques that are commonly associated with Alzheimer's disease. This effect was first observed in a 2008 study and expanded upon in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. Researchers at the University of South Florida looked at the potential therapeutic effects of marijuana and found that it significantly reduced the rate of amyloid plaque buildup, a defining marker of Alzheimer's disease.

Even low doses of THC proved to be "considerably more effective" at inhibiting amyloid production than the "approved drugs for Alzheimer's disease treatment, donepezil and tacrine," the researchers wrote. What's more, THC improved mitochondria functioning, demonstrating that the therapeutic value of the non-toxic substance was even greater than research has previously shown.

"These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer's disease through multiple functions and pathways," the University of South Florida researchers concluded.

Alzheimer's disease develops slowly in most patients, starting with early symptoms such as short-term memory loss and progressing over the course of three to seven years on average. The brains of Alzheimer's patients show signs of inflammation, a symptom that cannabis is known to treat. Specifically, select components of marijuana, including cannabidinol (CBD), naturally respond to receptors in the human brain that are responsible for reducing inflammation.

Alzheimer's diseaseWikimedia -

Other studies also support the argument that marijuana treats Alzheimer's disease. There is research suggesting that cannabis prevents cell death and stimulates cell growth—that it has antioxidant and neuroprotective properties. But the thing about Alzheimer's disease is that it is not fully understood; we cannot say definitively what causes or treats it. What we do know, however, is that marijuana is a promising treatment option for patients, and that is not limited to the cellular level.

Cannabis treats many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease by stimulating appetite, improving motor functioning, reducing agitation, and protecting "against some aspects of age-associated memory loss that leads to AD," as Psychology Today reported.

Every stoner knows that smoking pot affects short-term memory to some extent. How many high-deas have you had that just seem to disappear the next day? But that is a phenomenon known as context-dependent memory—the same neurological process that explains why it is a bad idea to study while you are drunk, for example. What we are talking about here is much different, and science has established that the neuroprotective properties of marijuana actually improve long-term memory, which is why the substance seems to help Alzheimer's patients.

September 21 is World Alzheimer's Day. Many of us have witnessed the devastating consequences of this disease firsthand and have watched as our parents and grandparents struggled with memory and a host of other health problems associated with Alzheimer's disease. Cannabis is not a cure, to be sure, but it does appear to be one of the most effective (and least dangerous) treatment options currently available.

To learn which strains of marijuana most commonly used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, check out Leafly.

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