If you have been reading about cannabis for a while, then you should already be familiar with the certain medical conditions and symptoms that the drug is known to treat. In fact, every state in the U.S. that has legalized medical cannabis specifies which conditions would qualify a patient to avail of the drug.
One of these conditions is Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disease that destroys patients’ memory and other mental functions. It damages and kills brain cells, leaving the brain with fewer cells and fewer connections among surviving cells than those of a healthy brain. And as more and more brain cells are killed, the brain shrinks significantly.
Early symptoms of this neurodegenerative condition include mild confusion and difficulty remembering things and organizing thoughts. Eventually, patients may forget the important people and events in their lives, go through dramatic personality changes, and lose the ability to perform even familiar tasks.
The exact causes for Alzheimer’s disease are not known and not fully understood yet, but scientists believe that for most patients, it is caused by a combination of genetics and of environmental and lifestyle factors that adversely affect the brain over time.
Upon examination of Alzheimer’s brain tissue under a microscope, dosctors found two types of abnormalities that are now considered the hallmark characteristics and key contributors of the neurodegenerative disease.
- Plaques, or clumps of beta-amyloid protein, which may damage and kill brain cells in a few ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication.
- Tangles, or threads of tau protein twisting into abnormal tangles inside the brain cells, which lead to a failure in the internal support and nutrient transport system. This transport system is responsible for delivering essential materials and nutrients throughout the brain.
How does cannabis help?
A preclinical study that was published in 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease had found that small doses of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which is a psychoactive chemical found in cannabis, can slow beta-amyloid protein production and prohibit the growth of the toxic beta-amyloid plaques.
Neel Nabar, co-author of the study, said that while THC may be effective, it is important to keep in mind that it does not mean THC can be used safely by just anyone. However, he said that the findings of their study may pave the way for the development of related compounds that are legal, safe, and useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
How about memory in general?
Cannabis targets the body’s endocannabinoid system, which houses receptors in the brain – called CB1 receptors – that are in-charge of the memory and learning. THC mostly binds to CB1 receptors, therefore stimulating their activity.
Moreover, scientists have discovered that low doses of THC in mice can reverse the age-related decline of memory and cognitive abilities. This finding could hopefully lead to scientists finding out a way to slow human brain aging.
However, there are also studies that found that THC can impair memory in two ways:
- Short-term recall difficulties. THC can make recalling events while one is high and even right after the high wears off, a challenge.
- Difficulty encoding memories. While cannabis users do not experience blackouts like the ones drinkers experience after going on an alcohol binge, they do find it more difficult to form new memories while they are high on cannabis.
Regular users may later develop a tolerance for these memory-related effects. What’s more, these memory impairments are merely temporary and have no residual effects after one or two days. Moreover, cannabis does not seem to affect a person’s ability to recall already existing memories.
Meanwhile, higher doses of marijuana taken frequently can adversely affect long-term memory. A study published by JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that those who consume use a lot of marijuana over a long period of time are at risk of developing poorer verbal memory recall compared to those who consumed less weed or do not consume at all.
The contradicting effects of cannabis on memory signify that more clinical studies are needed.