Medical Cannabis and Alzheimer’s Disease: 5 Things You Should Know

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cannabis alzheimer's treatment

Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common type of dementia, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects almost 6 million Americans. As the disease progresses, it slowly sabotages a person’s memory and cognitive functioning. Eventually the progression of Alzheimer’s is so bad that the simplest of tasks becomes impossible to perform. Though pharmaceutical companies have been actively engaged in developing medications to treat Alzheimer’s, they have not been very successful and the medications themselves present some troubling side effects. As a result, many patients have begun to seek alternative treatment options with medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, quickly becoming the most popular alternative treatment. Let’s take a look at the 5 things you should know when considering medical cannabis for Alzheimer’s Disease.

1. What Alzheimer’s Disease is. Alzheimer’s Disease was first discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. One of his patients, a woman known as Auguste D., was showing symptoms of paranoia, memory loss, and intellectual decline. During the patient’s autopsy, Dr. Alzheimer noticed that the nerve cells in her brain had visibly shrunk but due to the technological limitations of the time, no further details were known. As technology advanced, medical researchers were able to further study the neurological abnormalities that were present in this disease. They began to see patterns in how Alzheimer’s Disease progresses. For example, most patients showed symptoms that were mild at the onset and then later worsened over time. The disease generally presented itself after the age of 60, making Alzheimer’s a disease that affects older people exclusively. Modern research has led to the belief that the changes in the brain causing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s actually begin up to 20 years before the first sign of any symptoms presents itself. As of today, there is no known cure.

2. The causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is believed to be caused by shrinking in parts of the brain, leading to neurological and anatomical changes. The cause for these structural alterations is still unknown, but doctors believe that there are various environmental and genetic influences that have been identified as risk factors for making a person more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. For example, there is a known genetic link between Alzheimer’s patients. Medical researchers have identified a specific gene known as Apolipoprotein E that is linked to developing late-onset dementia. Unhealthy lifestyle choices and other underlying health conditions can contribute to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A person has a higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease if their lifestyle includes the following: smoking, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, alcoholism, type 2 diabetes, and nutritional deficiencies. Although it is not possible to reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, a healthy lifestyle can aid in slowing the progression down.

3. How Alzheimer’s affects the brain. There are three types of abnormalities which are known that are found in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s: the building up beta-amyloid plaques, tangles, and the loss of the connection between nerve cells. The plaques are clusters of beta-amyloid- a type of sticky protein found between nerve cells in the brain. These plaques prevent the fusion of the neurotransmitters responsible for proper memory functioning. As the plaques accrue, the ability of the brain to properly recall memory is further impaired until memory retrieval eventually becomes impossible. For patients with Alzheimer’s, the tangles found in the brain refer to tangled threads of protein known as tau. Also known as neurofibrillary tangles, they prevent brain cells from obtaining proper nourishment and lead them to die off as a result. As these tangles and plaques continue to accumulate, the nerve cells in the brain are prevented from effectively communicating. Without proper connection, the cells begin to die. Over time this leads to brain atrophy. The symptoms that arise from these brain abnormalities include impaired cognitive functioning in areas such as memory, focus and concentration, decision making, and judgement. There can also be notable personality changes and shifts in behavior and moods. It is not uncommon for those with Alzheimer’s to experience a marked decrease in their ability to perform daily tasks unassisted.

4. Traditional treatments for Alzheimer’s. There are two types of pharmaceutical medications which have been approved by the FDA which are aimed at slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s: Cholinesterase Inhibitors and N-methyl-D aspartate (NMDA) Receptor Antagonists. Cholinesterase Inhibitors promote the production of a type of neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. People with Alzheimer’s Disease have reduced levels of acetylcholine, which plays an important role in the encoding of memory. Some of the Cholinesterase Inhibitors commonly prescribed are Cognex, Aricept, Razadyne, and Exelon. These medications are associated with negative side effects such as diarrhea, insomnia, and loss of appetite. The second class of medications, NMDA receptor antagonists, are prescribed for patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s symptoms. The drug named Memantine is prescribed in an attempt to regulate the neurotransmitter glutamate. The side effects of Memantine are headaches, constipation, and dizziness.

5. How Medical Cannabis can help. Even though medical research into cannabis has been stifled due to legal roadblocks, the research that has been conducted into treating Alzheimer’s Disease with medical cannabis has yielded encouraging results. Multiple studies have looked at the relationship between the cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the brain. As previously mentioned, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is the buildup of amyloid plaques in the neural tissues. A study published in 2008 showed that THC slowed the growth of beta-amyloid. This discovery was again observed in a 2014 study appearing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. These scientists published that THC was, “a considerably more effective inhibitor of AChE-induced Aβ deposition than the approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, donepezil and tacrine, which reduced Aβ aggregation by only 22% and 7%, respectively, at twice the concentration used in our studies.” Another way that cannabis helps stop the progression of Alzheimer’s  is the reduction of inflammation caused by the buildup of amyloid plaque. By activating the CB1 receptor sites, cannabis creates an anti-inflammatory effect which aids in slowing down cognitive decline. 

The cannabinoid known as cannabidiol or CBD has also been shown to prevent brain cell death. Researchers in 2004 noted that CBD contains neuroprotective, anti-oxidative, and anti-apoptotic properties, which is important as it can reduce the neurotoxicity caused by the amyloid buildup in the brain. Additionally, cannabinoids have been shown to play a role in promoting the growth of neural tissue in the hippocampus- the area of the brain which is associated with learning new memories and regulating emotions. Perhaps the most compelling reason that many Alzheimer’s patients are turning to medical cannabis is its ability to improve their quality of life by alleviating many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Some of the ways medical cannabis can help include stimulating appetite, boosting motor functions, controlling anxiety, providing restorative sleep, and treating depression. While the research into medical cannabis is showing how it can be beneficial in slowing the progression of the disease, the improved quality of life is often reason enough for many patients to pursue a medical cannabis protocol.

The information contained in this text is for research purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. With a variety of medical cannabis strains and methods of ingestion, it is advised that patients speak with both their doctor and a qualified medical cannabis practitioner to ensure the best results from a medical cannabis protocol.


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