Neurodegenerative diseases are a category of disorders that involve the progressive degeneration of the central and/or peripheral nervous systems. Unfortunately, because we understand so little about the brain and nerves, all neurodegenerative diseases are as yet incurable, and there are precious few viable treatments to slow or manage symptoms. As a result, those diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and others suffer from increasing debilitation and eventually die from their conditions.
Yet, there might be a light on the horizon. Studies on cannabis have found an interesting connection between the drug and nerve cells, which might make marijuana a practical treatment — if not for neurodegenerative diseases as a whole than at least some of their more devastating symptoms.
What Does Cannabis Do in the Body?
Cannabis boasts various compounds that can cause physical and psychological effects within human users, but the most powerful are cannabinoids, which are compounds found only in the cannabis plant. Of the more than 100 cannabinoids yet identified, only two have been studied with any intensity: THC and CBD.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the most common cannabinoid in most varieties of cannabis, and it is largely responsible for the experience of being high. When the compound reaches a user’s bloodstream, it travels around the body and binds to a specific type of receptor, called CB1, which is controlled by the body’s endocannabinoid system. This system has many important functions, and THC binding in large quantities to endocannabinoid causes their system to function abnormally in various ways, such as speeding up digestion and reducing hand-eye coordination. It is possible to overdose with THC; though not necessarily life-threatening, an overdose tends to be incredibly uncomfortable, especially emotionally.
In contrast, CBD, or cannabidiol, is typically the second-most-common cannabinoid in cannabis. Unlike THC, CBD is non-psychoactive and thus does not create the feeling of being high. This is perhaps because CBD does not bind to endocannabinoid receptors; instead, CBD seems to influence the endocannabinoid system to produce more of the body’s neurotransmitters, which can help naturally fix many health concerns users are experiencing, like inflammation and pain. The effects of CBD seem to be minor, but they can provide relief.
The research on cannabis’s effects on the human body is at the earliest stages, which is why states like Oklahoma allow access to medical marijuana to anyone whose doctor believes the drug might pose a benefit. Fortunately, this means that scientists and doctors are discovering new applications for cannabis cures — and neurodegenerative diseases might be one of the most promising.
How Might Cannabis Fight Neurodegenerative Disease?
One of the most interesting discoveries pertaining to the effects of cannabis is that the drug seems to have neuroprotective properties. Both THC and CBD have been shown to facilitate in the protection and regeneration of neural tissues during and after traumatic events, to include long-term disease.
In one study, researchers found that sufferers of traumatic brain injury experienced better outcomes when they have THC in their system compared to sufferers who do not have any THC. This indicates that THC provides some function that facilitates protection and repair during and after physical degradation of neural tissues. In animal models, CBD has been shown to be effective in reducing the signs of neurological damage after a traumatic event, suggesting that CBD might be a good long-term tool for rebuilding brain and nerve cells as neurodegenerative diseases run their course.
Not all neurodegenerative diseases manifest in the same way or see the same factors contributing to the progression of the disease. As a result, not all sufferers of various neurological diseases could see the same benefits from the application of cannabinoids in their treatment strategy. Because no strict medication or treatment plan yet exists, those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases should talk to their doctors about the possibility of integrating medical cannabis into their strategy. Though marijuana can interact with other drugs, it is generally safe and provides other, non-neurological benefits that patients might appreciate.
While we have much to learn about the short- and long-term effects of all compounds within cannabis, emerging research does demonstrate that THC and CBD have some promise as treatment in cases of neurological injury or disease.