Cannabis has been used medicinally for over 2000 years and about half the states in the U.S. allow physicians to prescribe it in select medical conditions, Alzheimer’s being one of them.
Decades of lab research provides evidence of its value, but the use of medical cannabis remains controversial because it contains the cannabinoid THC, the chemical that provides the “high.” However, there are well over a hundred cannabinoids found in the plant that are not psychoactive. What’s more, one of these has been identified as a “potent neuroprotector.” It’s called cannabinol.
While THC is the main psychoactive component of marijuana, it’s also a potent antioxidant that can help the brain in amazing ways. Research shows THC reduces the production of amyloid-beta plaques, prevents their abnormal accumulation in brain cells, reduces inflammation, and enhances mitochondrial function. Mitochondria supply energy and transmit signals to maintain healthy brain function. What’s more, loss of mitochondrial function is also implicated in aging.
While many brain researchers hope THC could form the basis of a new Alzheimer’s treatment, there’s a snag, as described by THC researcher, Professor David Schubert from the prestigious Salk Institute, based in La Jolla, near San Diego in California.
Prof. Schubert said legal issues surrounding the classification of marijuana as a drug were a “major roadblock” in conducting further research into the medicinal properties of cannabis/marijuana.
Clearly frustrated, he said, “It’s so blatantly obvious that this plant should be studied in greater detail. It’s hard enough to get funding without having to worry about legal issues on top of it.”
These legal issues led the Salk Institute scientists to turn their attention to another marijuana component, cannabinol (CBN). CBN is a less heavily regulated cannabinoid, which the scientists previously studied and found to possess powerful neuroprotective properties.
Since it wasn’t clear why CBN protected brain cells, they conducted a study that focused on a biological process long believed to be a cause of Alzheimer’s.
Oxytosis and Alzheimer’s
David Schubert and his colleague Pamela Maher described oxytosis more than 20 years ago as a unique oxidative stress pathway that leads to depleted levels of the powerful antioxidant glutathione.
This depletion leads to extensive nerve cell death. Since then, evidence has grown pointing to oxytosis as a cause of Alzheimer’s.
In the study, the scientists triggered cell death in the hippocampus, a key memory and learning area, but cells that were pre-treated with CBN weren’t damaged and remained healthy. This also applied to the cells’ mitochondria.
The study was repeated after removing the mitochondria from the cells. This time, CBN showed no protective properties.
Dr. Maher, now head of Salk’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, summarized the importance of these findings.
Maintains Mitochondrial Function
“We’ve found that cannabinol protects neurons from oxidative stress and cell death, two of the major contributors to Alzheimer’s.
“We were able to directly show that maintenance of mitochondrial function was specifically required for the protective effects of the compound.
“Mitochondrial dysfunction is implicated in changes in various tissues, not just in the brain and aging, so the fact that this compound is able to maintain mitochondrial function suggests it could have more benefits beyond the context of Alzheimer’s disease…such as Parkinson’s, which is also linked to glutathione loss.”
Another key finding was that CBN didn’t activate cannabinoid receptors, which are required for cannabinoids to produce a psychoactive response. This means people can take the remedy with no risk of becoming high.
First author Zhibin Liang added that “evidence has shown that CBN is safe in animals and humans” and “could work in a wide variety of cells with ample therapeutic potential.”
CBN, while promising, is not yet widely available in supplement form. To protect your brain and mitochondria, rather than smoke marijuana and endure unfortunate side effects, there are various other supplements that offer good memory support. These include CoQ10, PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone), Acetyl L-Carnitine, N-Acetyl Cysteine and Glutathione, as well as a mineral-rich supplement commonly used in ayurvedic medicine called Shilajit.