One thing marijuana isn’t known to do is improve your memory. But there’s another reason why scientists believe it could fight Alzheimer’s disease.
Gary Wenk, PhD, professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, has studied how to combat brain inflammation for over 25 years.
His research has led him to a class of compounds known as cannabinoids, which includes many of the common ingredients in marijuana.
He says, throughout all of his research, cannabinoids have been the only class of drugs he’s found to work. What’s more, he believes early intervention may be the best way of fighting Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Wenk doesn’t see cannabinoids – or anything else – as a cure. But he took the time to discuss with us how marijuana might prevent the disorder from developing.
Q: What’s so important about brain inflammation?
Over the past few years, there’s been a focus on inflammation in the brain as causing a lot more than Alzheimer’s. We now know it plays a role in ALS, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, dementia, multiple sclerosis, autism, schizophrenia, etc.
We’re beginning to see that inflammation in the brain, if it lasts too long, can be quite detrimental.
And if you do anything, such as smoke a bunch of marijuana in your 20s and 30s, you may wipe out all of the inflammation in your brain and then things start over again. And you simply die of old age before inflammation becomes an issue for you.
Q: Does this apply to other anti-inflammatories?
Another analogy would be, if you’re lucky enough to get arthritis by the age of 40, and you start taking a lot of anti-inflammatories, whatever it might be, your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease are very low because you’ve been treating yourself day after day with these anti-inflammatories in high doses.
So the epidemiology has been sort of tapped to say, ‘look, inflammation is behind a lot of diseases and anything people do – that is, consume a drug, take a nutrient, or eat something that is anti-inflammatory – is beneficial.’
Q: There’s some evidence that marijuana can improve symptoms. Why is that, considering its effect on memory?
One of our findings is almost any low dose of cannabinoids in a young brain produces an impairment. What we found was that the same very, very low dose in an old brain didn’t impair our animals. So as our brain ages, how it responds to any drug, including cannabinoids, changes. And that may be beneficial in the case of cannabinoids.
Still, the evidence usually involves transgenic mice. I’ve never found those mice, that they love to call Alzheimer’s models, are very good models.
So I’m not willing to say cannabinoids, from that data, could treat Alzheimer’s. But the evidence thus far, that it has properties that would slow the onset, I think is far more compelling.
Q: What’s the conclusion then?
I think all we can say safely so far is using low doses of marijuana for prolonged periods of time at some point in your life, possibly when you’re middle-aged to late middle-aged, is probably going to slow the onset or development of dementia, to the point where you’ll most likely die of old age before you get Alzheimer’s.
But if we can intervene with enough people, then we can slow the development and keep them out of nursing homes. That saves the government and families an awful lot of money. So most companies are just hoping, if we can delay the entry of Alzheimer’s patients into a nursing home by just a year, you’re saving hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now we believe Alzheimer’s begins when you’re born. This is why we think by age 30 we can diagnose it. A cure is what we tell, you know, the popular press. The reality is we’re just hoping to slow it down.