Jul 6, 2016 9:10 AM

Cannabis and Neurodegenerative Diseases

The most famous examples of neurodegenerative diseases are Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, but in fact, there are several hundreds of different diseases that are associated with the slow death of neurons. All these diseases are considered to be incurable, so the patients and their loved ones can hope only for alleviating the symptoms. Can medical cannabis be one of the medicines that helps with this problem?

What are neurodegenerative diseases?

The concept of neurodegenerative diseases covers a whole variety of illnesses and conditions that damage the structure or function of neurons, which sometimes may lead to the death of nerve cells. The are many similarities between different neurodegenerative disorders, but it is still not completely clear what triggers their appearance and whether it is possible to cure them.

The majority of neurodegenerative diseases are caused by a genetic mutation. Others are associated with the aggregation of misfolded proteins. In 2010, the worldwide cost of treating only one of the neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer's disease, was $604 billion, which is 1% of the global gross domestic product.

According to the data of Harvard Neurodiscovery Center, over 7 million Americans suffer from the most frequently diagnosed neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Huntington's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), and if left unchecked, over 12 million more patients will have been affected by them 30 years from now.

Finding treatment and the most effective ways of alleviating the devastating symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases are the most urgent goals in the world of medicine.

Causes and symptoms

While the things that trigger the development of neurodegenerative diseases are still not clear, the researchers believe that a certain combination of factors may increase the risk of getting one or another neurodegenerative disorder.

These factors include traumatic brain injury, heavy metals or pesticide poisoning, and genetic mutations. The risk group is usually people older than 65 years old. The age is especially vital for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

In most cases, neurodegenerative disorders progress slowly and gradually, though all of them inevitably lead to progressive loss of structure or function of the brain or cerebral cord. This can reveal as problems with movements, general weakness, difficulties with breathing or controlling the muscles. In some cases, symptoms may be as serious as paralysis or impairment of heart function.

Moreover, the most frequent symptom of neurodegenerative diseases, and especially of Alzheimer's, is impairment of cognition and memory, which finally leads to the development of dementia.

How can cannabis help?

Familiar with the anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities of medicinal cannabis, the researchers started to speculate whether cannabinoids may be helpful in treating neurodegenerative diseases. The main interest is whether marijuana can help prevent, halt, or even reverse the disorders.

One of the scientists who are optimistic about the marijuana's contribution to the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases is MD Juan Sanchez-Ramos. A member of the Florida Medical Association, he was asked two years ago to help create a course that would teach physicians the proper procedures associated with medical cannabis. Since then, he has been thoroughly studying the issue.

Sanchez-Ramos notes that early laboratory studies allowed to tell that cannabinoids might have a certain potential in slowing the onset and the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. This may be possible due to the anti-oxidative and neuroprotective features of cannabinoids.

Problems on the way

The scientist is sure that further trials, especially on humans, will allow us to see the real power of marijuana and to use its impressive medicinal properties fully. Unfortunately, this is impossible now as cannabis is still considered to be an illegal Schedule I drug.

The last review on the issue was published in Cochrane back in 2009. The review found no evidence of the efficacy of cannabinoids in treating neurodegenerative disease just because there was not enough data, and it suggests that more studies would change the situation.

Luckily, since 2009, the attitude toward cannabis has changed, and it became legalized in almost half of the states of America. So, although marijuana is still illegal under federal law and in most states, scientists have conducted a number of studies on cannabinoids, and more recent reviews on the issue showed the results that differ a lot from the Cochrane's review.

Last reviews on the issue

Though marijuana is known to impair cognitive function, Dr. Andras Bilkei-Gorzo talks about the opposite effect of cannabinoids in his research review published in 2012. He says they found some cannabinoid receptor activation that could suppress neuroinflammatory processes and reduce the oxidative stress and excitotoxicity, which, in its turn, allowed to alleviate the symptoms of cognitive diseases and neurodegenerative motor.

Back in March 2014, the British Journal of Pharmacology published a review in which modulating the endocannabinoid system was recognized as “a potentially viable option in the treatment of neurodegeneration.”

Just a year ago, the American Academy of Neurology published a review of several trials on using marijuana or its compounds in neurologic diseases. In this review, they have found cannabinoids to show “effectiveness” or, in some cases, “probable effectiveness” in easing painful spasms, spasticity, and central pain that are usually associated with multiple sclerosis. They even suggested that cannabinoid-derived medications (for instance, dronabinol and nabilone) should be covered by insurance.

The future of studies on cannabis

Anyone who has experienced watching their loved ones suffer and slowly fade because of a neurodegenerative disease knows how important it is to find a remedy that can help people fight these horrible conditions.

So far, we can only suggest that cannabis can be that remedy, but what if it can really help? What if cannabis can boost human endocannabinoid system so that the progression of neurodegenerative diseases slows down? What if it can even reverse the disease? What if cannabinoids can prevent the onset or at least decrease the risk of acquiring the disease?

These questions may get the answer if more studies are conducted. But to make it possible, obviously, the society needs to make this research a top priority. During the last nine years, the attitude towards the issue has changed drastically. The research is promising, so maybe this herb can alleviate the suffering of millions of patients worldwide.

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