Alzheimer’s afflicts one in eight older Americans, and the odds of getting it rise as people age. As a result, we’ve been willing to try pretty much anything as a cure, from snake venom to lasers. But the latest solution is sure to get a lot of press, as it turns out cannabinoids, the stuff that gets you high in marijuana, might be an effective Alzheimer’s fighter.
And before you ask, no, Willie Nelson had nothing to do with the study. It comes from the Salk Institute, one of the top biomedical research institutes in the world. They were analyzing the mechanism of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s patients form amyloid beta plaques on the brain that interfere with the brain’s functioning and kill nerve cells. Just why this happens is still under debate, but what isn’t a cause for debate is that we need a way to get rid of those plaques.
The Salk team created neurons in the lab that gave off excessive amounts of amyloid beta proteins, and they were testing a drug known as J147, previously found to stall Alzheimer’s progression in mice. They found J147 worked by activating endocannabinoids, chemicals your body uses to regulate the nervous system that share quite a few similarities with the active ingredients in weed. Yes, an “exercise high” is a literal thing.
It turns out endocannabinoids are involved in the removal of amyloid beta proteins in the brain, among other things. That led the Salk Institute to test whether THC and the other cannabinoids could do the same job, and sure enough, they could.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you should sit down with Grandma and share a blunt, at least not for medical reasons. This is just a lab test, and it’s not clear whether inhaling THC would be an effective method of getting it into the brain to clean up the amyloid beta. In fact, chemically, THC may have a lower ability to bind with nerve cells than our own endocannabinoids, making working out a more effective method of getting high than smoking up, although it’s important to note that “may” is the operative word here. This area of study is hotly debated and under-researched.
But, what THC lacks in efficacy, it gains in being cheap to grow, impossible to patent, and fairly well understood as a chemical. If this holds up in human trials, which still need to be conducted, we can make a lot of cannabinoids and make them fast. Provided this holds up, it means we could quickly and efficiently stall Alzheimer’s in its tracks. It’s all up to the DEA and the FDA, who will hopefully fast track this research, and even if it ultimately doesn’t pan out, it’s a valuable clue to stopping the disease altogether.