As the brain gets older, it becomes more susceptible to degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Although different areas of the brain are affected, what underlies both conditions is the progressive death of brain cells.
While a number of therapies can be prescribed, scientists have yet to develop treatments that can slow or cure these disorders. However, researchers now believe compounds that target the body’s marijuana pathways, known as the endocannabinoid system (‘endo’ stands for endogenous), could lead to the development of such treatments.
“Modulation of the endogenous cannabinoid system is emerging as a potentially viable option in the treatment of neurodegeneration,” wrote University of Dublin researchers Veronica Campbell, PhD and Steven Fagan, PhD last month in the British Journal of Pharmacology.
“The endocannabinoid system has been identified as a possible therapeutic target against neurodegeneration as a number of alterations in the endocannabinoid system have been noted in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease,” they continued.
According to the pair, studies have already demonstrated the promise of THC, the main compound in cannabis, in managing a number of Alzheimer’s related symptoms:
“Dronabinol, derived from the phytocannabinoid THC, is beneficial in reducing anorexia, increasing body weight and improving behaviour in elderly Alzheimer’s disease patients. Dronabinol has more recently been assessed in a pilot study with Alzheimer’s patients where it improved nocturnal motor activity and reduced agitation and aggression, without undesired side effects.”
What’s more, previous studies found THC could prevent the loss of dopamine neurons in animal models of Parkinson’s. “The endocannabinoid system is believed to be a promising therapeutic target for delaying disease progression and ameliorating Parkinsonian symptoms,” the researchers note.
“The endocannabinoid system is believed to be a promising therapeutic target”Likewise, Dr. Fagan and Dr. Campbell say that studies point to “the alteration of multiple components of the endocannabinoid system in the progression of Huntington’s disease,” a movement disorder that shares a number of similarities with Parkinson’s.Although trials involving herbal cannabis as a treatment for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s are lacking, the authors highlight research on a cannabis-based pharmaceutical, Sativex, as an example of its therapeutic promise.
“Preclinical studies have investigated the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities of the phytocannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD), combined with THC, in the form of the cannabis-based medicine Sativex, which is already used as a therapeutic agent for multiple sclerosis,” they wrote.
Sativex has been studied in patients with multiple sclerosis and is currently available in 25 countries for the treatment of MS-related symptoms. However, the drug’s potential to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease has been noted as well.
Previous research has suggested both the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of marijuana as key factors in its protective effects.