Why Cannabis Holds Promise for Alzheimer’s Patients

Across the U.S., 14 states with comprehensive medical cannabis programs include Alzheimer’s as a qualifying condition. Studies have found cannabis effective at both preventing Alzheimer’s onset as well as therapeutic in treating some Alzheimer’s symptoms, however there’s little research to support that it can reverse the neurodegenerative condition.

Cannabis for Alzheimer’s prevention

While it’s not a magic bullet by any means, “only one puff” of cannabis between the ages of 30 and 60 could help stave off the disease, according to Gary L. Wenk, an Ohio State professor of psychology, neuroscience, molecular virology, immunology, and medical genetic.

Wenk explains that after age 30 “the brain gradually displays increasing evidence of inflammation. With advancing age, brain inflammation continues to worsen leading to a decline in the production of new neurons, called neurogenesis, that are important for making new memories.” Stimulating the brain’s cannabis receptors, Wenk’s research concluded, reduces brain inflammation and helps restore neurogenesis – and only requires one puff of cannabis that “has not been genetically altered to enhance the level of one or two ingredients.”

Cannabis, THC, CBD and inflammation

Wenk notes that a 2015 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that using products with both THC and CBD are more effective at reducing brain inflammation than alone – this is called the entourage effect.

Another study, by the Salk Institute, found that THC “can promote the cellular removal of amyloid beta, a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” This study, too, found the anti inflammatory qualities of cannabis on the brain.

“Inflammation within the brain is a major component of the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it has always been assumed that this response was coming from immune-like cells in the brain, not the nerve cells themselves,” Antonio Currais, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of the paper said in 2016. “When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”

Cannabis for Alzheimer’s – symptoms treatment

A Canadian study conducted in 2018 found that a synthetic cannabinoid reduced agitation, aggression, and anxiety in Alzheimer’s patients. Dr. Nathan Herrmann, one of the study’s authors, noted that less than 150 patients with Alzheimer’s had been included in clinical trials focused on cannabis and Alzheimer’s and none of the studies looked at the role cannabis played in easing behavioral symptoms. Herrmann cautions that while cannabis “might help some aspects of [the] disease” it’s unclear due to the lack of research whether there could be some “worrisome side effects” such as sedation, worsening of memory and other cognitive functions, and psychotic symptoms.

In 2015, a very small study in Israel – just 10 participants – concluded that adding THC oil to “patients’ pharmacotherapy is safe and a promising treatment option.” Commonly, all researchers noted that more and broader studies are needed to come to hard conclusions on the use of cannabis for the condition, which effects more than 5.7 million people in the U.S., the majority of which are older than 65.

Tinctures or edibles best for dosing

Each of these studies urged caution when using cannabis for Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment and for elderly patients especially it’s important to consider dosing options, such as tinctures or edibles – methods that can be metered more effectively than smoking.

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