Most images of marijuana in pop culture involve stoners getting high and forgetting what they were doing. But what if weed could actually prevent memory problems instead of causing them?
A group of scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego have found that the chemical compounds in cannabis actually help protect the brain from decay. Their study, published in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease, shows that marijuana has therapeutic potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
The Salk team actually began their study by examining J147, another experimental Alzheimer’s drug. As they put that drug through its paces, they discovered that it activated endocannabinoids, receptors that mediate the effects of marijuana on the brain but can also reduce brain inflammation.
Given this result, researchers decided to find out if marijuana itself could help memory. They altered human nerve cells in the lab so they would produce high levels of amyloid, a protein produced in the brain that can build up and form plaque deposits—the accumulation of these deposits over time may hasten the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The scientists then isolated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most potent chemical in cannabis, and exposed the altered cells to it. The THC removed amyloid and allowed nerve cells to survive, which would theoretically improve memory in human subjects.
“The government doesn’t want to fund clinical trials and drug companies can’t make a profit. Until the social structure changes and the laws change, it’s gonna be difficult to sort this out.”- Dr. David Schubert
“We want to make people aware of marijuana’s potential to treat neurological diseases,” Dr. David Schubert, a professor at the Salk Institute who led the study, told the Observer.
He added that THC interacts directly with the brain’s receptors, while most other opiates developed to treat Alzheimer’s interact with other parts of the brain not directly impacted by the disease.
More research needs to be conducted to determine which specific strains of marijuana are most effective, based on factors like chemical composition, potency and THC composition.
But Dr. Schubert said he can’t actually coordinate further studies because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers marijuana a schedule 1 drug, with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
“This makes it almost impossible to do any science,” Dr. Schubert said. “The government doesn’t want to fund clinical trials and drug companies can’t make a profit. Until the social structure changes and the laws change, it’s gonna be difficult to sort this out.”
Medical marijuana has made some headway in the sports world—cannabidiol (CBD), an extract of marijuana, has been shown to help retired football players relieve pain and protect themselves from brain injuries. Because of this, a group of ex-players is petitioning the National Football League (NFL) to overturn its marijuana ban, though so far they have had little success.
While no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, only clinical trials could determine the optimal level of marijuana for Alzheimer’s therapy.
But until sports leagues and the government at large acknowledge the biology of blunts, Dr. Schubert said his research and grant funding are at a standstill.
“We’re very hampered by the regulations,” he said. “The rules are killing the science.”
DEA staff coordinator Russell Baer, however, told the Observer that 344 people are currently conducting research for the agency on marijuana’s abuse potential, physical and psychological effects and therapeutic potential—several of these studies, including one on CBD, involve human subjects.
“DEA has never turned down a legitimate request for research on marijuana,” Baer said in an email. “We are making provisions to make applying for permits to do research easier.”
The DEA is, however, bound by the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1992. The law sets strict regulations on drug scheduling which marijuana has yet to meet: the drug’s chemistry must be known and reproducible, there must be adequate safety studies and studies proving efficacy, and the drug must be accepted by qualified experts with widely available scientific evidence.
“To date, no clinical study of marijuana or its components has progressed to the level required for approval by FDA as a medical product,” Baer said.