A team in Spain is developing marijuana-like drugs that may one day be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at the Medicinal Chemistry Institute of the Spanish National Council for Research (CSIC) believe a class of chemicals found in marijuana, called cannabinoids, hold promise in improving the lives of Alzheimer’s patients.
The team, led by Concepción Pérez, PhD, explained last month in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry why cannabinoids are “very attractive candidates” for new treatments.
Cannabinoids act on specific pathways in the brain called cannabinoid receptors, which are responsible for the effects of marijuana. According to the team, previous studies on the role of cannabinoids in Alzheimer’s suggest a number of benefits.
Between the two cannabinoid pathways, CB1 activity seems to preserve cognitive function while CB2 activity may help protect and repair the brain.
“Taken together, these results suggest that CB1 receptor agonists may interrupt the mechanism of excitotoxicity and CB2 receptor agonists may suppress neuroinflammation and lead to plaque removal.”
Cannabinoids can target not only the endocannabinoid system, they note, but other disease-related systems as well.
The most widely prescribed drugs today help boost levels of acetylcholine, with the assumption that a lack of acetylcholine underlies Alzheimer’s. However, these drugs have proven to be ineffective.
More current research instead points to chronic inflammation as the cause of Alzheimer’s.
The team is currently working on developing CB2 agonists that can prevent the build-up of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain – a key marker of the disease.
The build-up of plaque is believed to block neuron signaling and trigger cell death through inflammation.
Likewise, researchers in the U.S. have identified cannabinoids as promising candidates for preventing inflammation in Alzheimer’s.
Gary Wenk, PhD, a professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, told TIME that in his 25 years of researching ways to combat brain inflammation, “cannabinoids are the first and only class of drugs that have ever been effective.”