Alzheimers disease afflicts more than six million people in North America. It is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that 60-70 percent of cases of dementia manifest as Alzheimers. This equates to the death of one in three seniors from Alzheimers or a related condition of dementia.
Alzheimer was identified in 1906 and bears the name of its discoverer, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. Alzheimer first diagnosed the condition after performing an autopsy on the brain of a woman who died of an unknown mental illness. He learned that Alzheimers disease begins damaging the brain up to a decade before any short-term memory loss is experienced.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the cost to society of caring for Alzheimers patients is estimated to be in excess of $100 billion annually.
Causes + Symptoms
The frightening aspect of Alzheimer disease is the fact that it can cause relatively symptom-free neurodegeneration for a decade or longer prior to detection via behavioral impacts.
During this period, large deposits of proteins appear within the brain. These protein growths, called amyloid plaques and tau tangles, begin to appear throughout the brain. This results in the death of healthy neurons and, after enough damage has occurred and accumulated, can have a dramatically deleterious impact on cognition, memory, and social interactions.
Alzheimers typically begins in the hippocampus of the brain, a section known to play a major role in memory formation and function. As the disease progresses, it kills a larger number of brain cells, eventually reaching outside the hippocampus. This causes the brain to literally shrink, eventually resulting in potentially vegetative debilitation and death.
Cannabinoids such as CBD and THC help to remove these plaques and excess proteins from the brain by transporting them through the blood-brain barrier. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of Alzheimers disease include:
Repeat statements and questions over and over
Forget conversations, appointments or events, and not remember them later
Routinely misplace possessions, often putting them in illogical locations
Get lost in familiar places
Eventually forget the names of family members and everyday objects
Have trouble finding the right words to identify objects, express thoughts or take part in conversations
Jack Herer’s Mother
The late Jack Herer, author of the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes and arguably the world’s most famous hemp activist, in 2006 delivered a speech to a small crowd of cannabis activists, cultivators, and journalists in Lake County, California. I was among the journalists.
Herer, infamous for his outspoken passion for the legalization and social embrace of all things hemp, took a departure from his standard litany of the benefits of legal hemp to discuss a personal topic: His mother’s gradual neurological degradation and eventual death from Alzheimers disease.
Herer delivered a emotional speech about how his mother successfully employed cannabis to battle Alzheimers during the final years of her life. He described how the herb restored her memory, gave her clarity and “presence,” and lifted her mood.
Herer said his mother began demonstrating symptoms of Alzheimers when she was 75 years old (in 1983) and living on the East Coast. He said the degradation of her cognitive function became apparent when she began forgetting the faces of close relatives with whom she had visited recently.
“When she [visited me in] California, I gave her marijuana morning, noon, and night,” said Herer. After only weeks of cannabis consumption, the acclaimed author claims that his mother was symptom free. “After six weeks, she had no symptoms of Alzheimers whatsoever.”
When his mother returned to the East Coast, Herer gave her 60 cannabis joints and told her he would send her another 60 each month, instructing her to smoke two per day.
Unfortunately, when Herer’s mother returned to her Florida home, her husband forbade her to possess or consume cannabis due to its illegality. She discarded the cannabis joints prepared for her by her son. Herer described how his mother soon digressed into memory loss so severe that she required hospitalization. For the final four years of her life, Herer’s mother recognized neither her son Jack nor any other relatives.
“If you start using [cannabis] when you’re 20 or 30 or 40, your chances are high you will not get Alzheimers,” Herer told the audience with tears in his eyes.
A variety of research studies conducted over the past two decades have indicated a strong ability of cannabinoids, such as CBD and THC, to not only halt the progression of the neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimers disease, but to reverse symptoms.
Research indicates that some cannabis cannabinoids may restore neuroplasticity and, with it, memory and social functionality in Alzheimers patients. Some studies indicate that cannabis and its constituent medicinal molecules may be superior to conventional pharmaceutical drugs.
A 2014 study entitled “β-Amyloid Inhibits E-S Potentiation through Suppression of Cannabinoid Receptor 1-dependent Synaptic Disinhibition” and published in the journal Neuron found that the body’s ECS may inhibit the effects of amyloid plaques and improve neuroplasticity (the ability of brain cells to form new connections and handle different types of communications).
Concluded the researchers, “Thus, a pathway through which Aβ can act to modulate neural activity [has been] identified, relevant to learning and memory and how it may mediate aspects of the cognitive decline seen in Alzheimers disease.”
A 2014 study called “Chronic Cannabidiol Treatment Improves Social and Object Recognition in Double Transgenic APPswe/PS1∆E9 Mice” and published in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed that CBD decreases memory loss in Alzheimers patients. The researchers believe that CBD reverses neurological damage in the brain by helping repair and even create new neurons.
The study concluded, “This is the first study to investigate the effect of chronic CBD treatment on cognition in an AD transgenic mouse model. Our findings suggest that CBD may have therapeutic potential for specific cognitive impairments associated with AD.”
A 2014 study entitled “The Potential Therapeutic Effects of THC on Alzheimers Disease” that was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed THC’s antioxidant properties and how they are associated with its neuroprotective properties. The study found that THC directly affects the pathology of Alzheimers by decreasing amyloid levels.
The researchers also found that THC “enhances” the function of the energy factories called mitochondria in brain cells. Concluded the study, “These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimers disease through multiple functions and pathways.”
A 2013 study entitled “Role of the Cannabinoid System in the Transit of Beta-amyloid Across the Blood–brain Barrier” and published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience determined that cannabis may slow or even halt the progression of Alzheimers disease.
Concluded the researchers, “These findings provide insight into the mechanism by which cannabinoid treatment reduces Aβ burden in the AD brain and offer additional evidence on the utility of this pathway as a treatment for AD.”
A 2006 study entitled “Marijuana’s Active Ingredient Shown to Inhibit Primary Marker of Alzheimers Disease” and published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics employed computer modeling and biochemical assays. It reported, “With its strong inhibitory abilities, THC may provide an improved therapeutic for Alzheimers disease” that treats “both the symptoms and progression” of the common disease.
The researchers concluded, “We also found that THC was considerably more effective than two of the approved drugs for Alzheimers disease treatment, donepezil (Aricept) and tacrine (Cognex), which reduced amyloid aggregation by only 22 percent and 7 percent, respectively, at twice the concentration used in our studies. Our results are conclusive enough to warrant further investigation.”