Dementia is a crippling condition that affects millions of Canadians. There is no known cure for the condition, but with medical marijuana in Canada now widely available, many are beginning to ask whether it can help treat the condition more effectively than traditional pharmaceutical methods.
The evidence for the role of cannabis in treating dementia is promising, but the scientific community is still on the fence regarding its benefits. Here we take a more in-depth look.
What Is Dementia?
Tens of millions of people currently suffer from dementia. While it tends to affect older people, medical practitioners don’t consider it a normal aspect of ageing. The term dementia incorporates several different diseases that relate to impaired thinking, communication, and memory.
Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia, and many scientific studies report on the effects of cannabis as a treatment. Those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease experience a breakdown of the hippocampus, the brain region primarily responsible for memory recall.
One of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s is the build-up of amyloid-ß (Aß) plaques and the entanglement of fibres in brain cells known as neurofibrillary tangles. Both of these produce inflammation in the brain and increase quantities of damaging free radicals. The brain then releases glutamate to help control the alarming increase, but these levels soon become toxic and kill the neurons responsible for the brain signalling.
How CBD Can Help Treat Alzheimer’s
Where pharmaceutical medications generally try and remove the plaque build-up, an alternative approach would be to control the resulting inflammation and free radical production, and it’s here where cannabis shines.
Both THC and CBD are potent antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that CBD is particularly effective at combating the inflammation induced by plaque build-up. CBD also seems to reduce the presence of the plaque itself, something that makes the cells much more resilient to the onset of Alzheimer’s.
CBD has a remarkable ability to help protect the hippocampus from toxins and the onset of further deterioration. It reduces the activation of support cells known as microglia. Microglia are designed to protect the brain from further damage, but when produced in high quantities, it leads to more problems than it solves. CBD reduces the activation of microglia, and scientists note that it’s most effective when administered in the early onset period of the disease.
How THC Can Help Treat Dementia
According to some researchers, THC may well be one of the most useful compounds in treating dementia. It addresses several of the root issues that contribute to dementia, such as inflammation, plaque, and neurofibrillary tangles.
A mouse study carried out suggested that THC administration slows down the rate of ageing in the brain. According to the scientists involved in the study, THC imitates the effects of natural cannabinoids produced in the body. The production of these cannabinoids tends to decrease as subjects age, which leads to rapid ageing within the brain.
By administering THC to the ageing mice, scientists found that after examining brain tissue and gene activity in the mice that their brains were very similar to those of younger mice. They also noted that the number of links between the nerve cells in the brain also increased, something that’s closely tied to their ability to learn. THC effectively turned back the molecular clock on these mice subjects.
Researchers are currently planning human tests on the application of THC to treat dementia, and time will tell whether the results from the mice study transfer across to humans.
CB2 Activation and Dementia
Vascular dementia is another form of neurological impairment that often occurs in parallel with Alzheimer’s. Vascular dementia often occurs due to a lack of blood flow to the brain, which ultimately leads to the death of cells. Science shows that by activating the CB2 receptors, patients can recover blood flow to the brain.
CB2 receptors occur throughout the body and are most commonly stimulated by THC administration. But while their activation may help combat Alzheimer’s, it’s the ability of cannabis to restrict blood flow in other ways that worries some researchers.
The Evidence That Marijuana Doesn’t Help Treat Dementia
As the science isn’t fully resolved either way, there are some in the scientific community who warn of potential adverse effects. One commonly cited effect is that of reduced blood flow to the brain. Some worry that restricted blood flow to the hippocampus region may ultimately leave people at higher risk of developing dementia.
Studies do show that marijuana consumers often tend to have lower blood flow in the hippocampus than non-users. But when it comes to hippocampal blood flow, there are several other factors implicated, which include smoking and a lack of exercise, both of which are contributing factors.
The Medical Community is Still on the Fence
At the time of writing, there is no consensus within the scientific community as to whether cannabis consumption is helpful or detrimental to the onset and treatment of dementia. While much of the emerging evidence sounds promising, research still has a ways to go before it becomes accepted among the scientific community.
There may be an inbuilt resistance to the adoption of cannabis among many in the medical community. Due to a long alliance with pharmaceutical intervention, many western medical doctors are reluctant to go with less tried and trusted treatments.
While pharmaceutical interventions may serve to provide patients with some relief or suppress symptoms, there is currently no cure for dementia, nor are there any disease-modifying drugs that combat Alzheimer’s disease or any of the related dementias.
As the scientific evidence continues to mount, only time will tell if cannabis can provide the medical community with a breakthrough. While THC and CBD show some promise, there are also numerous minor cannabinoids of which comparatively little is known. As science begins to uncover the deeper workings of the cannabis plant, it may well become a powerful ally in helping treat the source of this debilitating condition much more effectively than merely suppressing the symptoms.
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