Though no one is suggesting that smoking cannabis can have any kind of healing effect on Alzheimer’s disease, an intriguing new study in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease reveals that cannabinoids such as THC may help to remove protein plaques from the brain. In doing so, they could protect neurons from dying, ultimately staving off dementia.
Alzheimer’s is strongly associated with the build-up of amyloid-beta proteins in the brain, forming plaques that are thought to somehow damage neurons and cause their demise. As a result, key brain regions like the hippocampus can decrease in volume, leading to severe learning and memory defects. However, the exact mechanism by which these plaques kill neurons remains poorly understood.
To investigate, the researchers developed a line of nerve cells that were genetically programmed to produce high levels of amyloid-beta proteins. Observing the effect this had on the cells in the lab, the study authors discovered that these plaques caused several proinflammatory genes to become expressed in the neurons, leading to the release of neurotoxic inflammatory chemicals.
As previous research has revealed that the body’s natural cannabinoids – known as endocannabinoids – have the potential to reduce inflammation, the team decided to treat the neurons with THC, a psychoactive compound found in marijuana, which acts upon many of the same receptors as some endocannabinoids. In doing so, they found that the chemical effectively stopped the plaque attack, by both removing much of the amyloid-beta and reducing the inflammatory response.
Consequently, the neurons were able to survive for much longer after being treated with THC. Expanding on this discovery, study co-author Antonio Currais explained in a statement that “when we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”
Though more research will be needed in order to figure out how this information can be harnessed in order to create new treatments for Alzheimer’s, the results of this research could potentially open up exciting new avenues of investigation into how cannabinoids can be used as a weapon against cognitive decline.