Cannabinoids May Slow Brain Aging


Marijuana users aren’t known for their memory prowess but a new review suggests that drugs similar to marijuana’s active ingredients may hold promise for preventing— or even reversing— brain aging and possibly Alzheimer‘s and other degenerative brain diseases.

Since the mid 2000′s researchers have been building an appreciation for the power of marijuana-like substances that make up the brain’s cannabinoid systems. In animal experiments, for example, synthetic compounds similar to THC—marijuana’s main psychoactive component—have shown promise in preserving brain functions. A 2008 study even demonstrated that a THC-like substance reduced brain inflammation and improved memory in older rats.

The latest review, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, suggests that activating the brain’s cannabinoid system may trigger a sort of anti-oxidant cleanse, removing damaged cells and improving the efficiency of the mitochrondria, the energy source that powers cells, ultimately leading to a more robustly functioning brain.

Previous studies have linked cannabinoids to increased amounts of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that protects brain cells and promotes the growth of new ones. Since new cell growth slows or stops during aging, increasing BDNF could potentially slow the decline in cognitive functions.

Activation of cannabinoid receptors can also reduce brain inflammation in several different ways, which may in turn suppress some of the disease processes responsible for degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Andras Bilkei-Gorzo of the Institute of Molecular Psychiatry at the University of Bonn in Germany and an author of the study, is encouraged by the expanding knowledge of the brain’s cannabinoid system and its potential for leading to new understanding of aging in the brain. “[C]annabinoid system activity is neuroprotective,” he wrote, and increasing it “could be a promising strategy for slowing down the progression of brain aging and for alleviating the symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders.”

Still, Gary Wenk, professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, who conducted some of the research Bilkei-Gorzo included in the review, is aware of the delicate nature of cannabinoid research, given the controversial nature of medical marijuana issues. “The literature is a mess and he’s done a nice job organizing it,” he says. “He was positive about developing cannabinoid drugs without going overboard.”

Read More: TIME Health and Family

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