The number of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease is expected to triple in the United States by 2050, causing scientists to look for more effective treatments for the mental condition.
A new study suggests that marijuana might play a key role in such treatments, the Huffington Post reports.
Results of the study found that a compound present in marijuana prompted the elimination of beta-amyloid proteins from nerve cells, also known as neurons. Beta-amyloid is considered the defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s – the protein forms clumps in the brain of people with the condition, forming plaques that hinder normal brain activity.
Previous studies have concluded that these plaques interrupt communication between neurons in the brain, which leads to the symptoms specific to Alzheimer’s, such as degenerative memory loss.
Preventing these plaques from forming is the seemingly obvious way to stop these symptoms, but because researchers and doctors alike are unsure of how these proteins factor in the disease, this seems easier said than done.
Prof. David Schubert, senior author on the study and professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and a team of colleagues decided to modify neurons to produce high levels of protein.
The researchers found that increased beta-amyloid production led to an increase in the presence of pro-inflammatory proteins in neurons, causing inflammation and nerve cell death.
Antonio Currais, also of the Salk Institute and first author on the study, said, “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.”
The team said that neurons in the brain have receptors that are activated by lipid molecules called endocannabinoids. These molecules are produced naturally and are thought to help in nerve cell signaling.
Marijuana, on the other hand, contains a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is similar to these naturally produced endocannabinoids and triggers the same receptors.
The scientists wondered if THC could actually prevent nerve cell death, and decided to test their theory.
THC was applied to nerve cells with high beta-amyloid production, and the researchers discovered that the marijuana compound decreased beta-amyloid levels and eliminated the inflammatory response to the protein, which stopped nerve cell death.
Clinical trials are necessary to further confirm the role that THC might have in protecting neurons against beta-amyloid, but the team believes that their findings have helped shed some light on the role the protein plays in Alzheimer’s, and hopefully open new possibilities for treatments.
Schubert said, “Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells.”
The study has been published in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.