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Alzheimer’s disease, also known as dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that typically presents in adults over the age of 65. The disease causes symptoms such as dementia; as it progresses, it renders the sufferer increasingly unable to care for themselves.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but therapies such as cannabis may slow its progression. There have been a number of reports over the years that claim that cannabis or one of its components (called cannabinoids – such as THC and CBD) could help to prevent or treat dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.
Some research in laboratory settings has suggested that components of cannabis could have an effect on some of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is no evidence that cannabis can help to prevent the underlying causes of the disease in people. There is also evidence that heavy, long-term use of cannabis could be associated with problems with memory and thinking.
Some studies have shown that taking cannabis or cannabinoids could help to manage some of the behavioural symptoms of dementia, for example, agitation and aggression. However, more work is needed to understand whether this could actually be an effective approach.
HOW ARE DEMENTIA AND CANNABIS ASSOCIATED?
The hippocampus, which contains the CB1 receptor, is known to be vulnerable to the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease and this damage contributes towards the problems with memory and learning associated with the disease. There is also building evidence that the microglia, which contains the CB2 receptor, plays a crucial role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Coupled with this, some studies have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease have an increased number of CB2 receptors in their brains.
There has been some research interest in the role of the endocannabinoid system as a potential target for treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have shown that components of cannabis have appeared to remove the Alzheimer’s hallmark amyloid clumps from nerve cells grown in the lab. A study that gave a combination of THC and CBD to mice that showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease found that the mice had improved learning and had less evidence of amyloid clumps in their bodies. Other researchers believe that targeting the CB2 receptor could control the activity of microglia, preventing the potentially harmful overactivation of the immune system in the brain.
However, as yet no studies or trials have looked into the effects of cannabis or its components on the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease in people. Whilst the studies in the laboratory show some promise, we need to understand the wider effects that these components have before we can know whether they have any effect – positive or negative – on the development of Alzheimer’s in people.
It is also worth noting that many of these studies have involved a particular component of cannabis in isolation. Even if one component is found to influence dementia risk, it doesn’t necessarily mean that taking cannabis would have the same effect.
There is also a large amount of variation in the levels of CBD in different strains of the plant so the effects could depend on the type of cannabis used.
CLINICAL STUDY RESOURCES: