In recent times, more and more information has been surfacing about the many ways that marijuana’s effect on the brain can be used to treat and prevent or slow a variety of conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. Many of these conditions can develop during the aging process. This led researchers to explore marijuana’s effect on the brain in old mice and they discovered that marijuana increased both learning and memory functions in the brain. The revelation that the plant can assist with cognitive capabilities in the elderly opens up a world of further studies that will be necessary for learning how it works, the right amount for the best results and more.
THC Tests on Mice
German scientists have begun to investigate the effects of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana on memory. As it turns out, marijuana’s effect on the brain is more impressive than previously thought. In a paper published in Nature Medicine, lead author and neuroscientist Andreas Zimmer from the University of Bonn describes the process he and his team underwent to get an idea how the compound would react on the brains of mice at different ages. The compound would be given at low doses to the mice of varying ages and they would be given a series of tests to see how each mouse functioned under the influence.
Mice live for approximately 2 years and already at 1 year they have an extremely difficult time remembering and learning. The experiment was conducted on mice that were 2 months, 18 months and 1.5 years old. They were given very low doses of THC and then monitored to see how well they did on a range of tests, including seeing if they could find their way out of a small pool of water. What they found quite definitively is that the older mice who had the doses of THC performed as well or almost as well as the younger mice. Interestingly, the younger mice performed a lot worse, showing that THC may not be the best thing for teens.
How Cannabinoids Effect the Brain
The cannabinoids that are produced in the body, help the brain with many functions. Over time, with age, the cannabinoids are produced less. THC mimics these cannabinoids, rejuvenating the endocannabinoid system that governs so many physical functions and increases the effectiveness of all cognitive abilities. This serves to heal and stabilize the functions of the brain in elderly people. On the other hand, the THC over-stimulated the already functioning cannabinoids in the brain of someone younger.
Dramatic Benefits in the Elderly Mice
Researchers progressed into looking into the brains of the elderly mice for an explanation as to how the compound may have worked to make such a radical difference so quickly. They found that neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is critical for learning and memory, had sprouted more synaptic spines which are the contact point of communication between neurons. On top of this, the gene expression pattern in that part of the brain was totally different from the other older mice that hadn’t been given the THC. Instead it looked like the patterns in the young untreated mice. The THC seemed to have triggered the neurons in parts of the brain linked to learning and memory resulting in an increase in health and communication. The impact was so significant that the mental functions of the elderly mice were completely rejuvenated and improved.
Marijuana’s Effect on an Aging Brain
Humans and animals naturally produce marijuana-like compounds in the body that feed the endogenous cannabinoid system, regulating sleep, mood and a number of other functions. Marijuana’s effect on the brain involves THC and CBD compounds which are very similar to the compounds produced by the body that lead to health and vitality.
Ryan McLaughlin, a researcher who studies cannabis and stress at Washington State University explained, “We know the endogenous cannabinoid system is very dynamic; it goes through changes over the lifespan.” He talked about how it slowly develops during childhood “and then it blows up in adolescence—you see increased activity of its enzymes and receptors,” McLaughlin says. “Then as we age, it’s on a steady decline.” Zimmer’s study discovered that marijuana’s effect on the brain provided stimulation to the endogenous cannabinoid system in aging animals, reversing the signs of aging. Since both humans’ and animals’ endogenous cannabinoid systems deteriorate with age, it would seem that cannabis has the ability to produce those compounds that are lacking in the brain of the elderly, thus improving memory and learning capabilities.
Dosage is Crucial
Based on the results ascertained by looking at THC’s effect on younger mice, dosage is very important to the success of this experiment in adults. More research is necessary before we can truly understand the impact of cannabis on the brain. The research indicates that it has the potential to slow and even reverse degenerative brain conditions as well as act as an anti-aging compound for rejuvenating the brain’s ability to process and retain information. Strains, dosages and individual compounds still need to be explored, as well as its effects on various symptoms and conditions.
Restrictions on Research
Cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD, meaning that it is federally illegal and considered to be one of the highest risk drugs with no medicinal value. Due to its status in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug, no official government sanctioned research has been allowed to be conducted. Lawmakers are working to change this and it would seem the sooner this happens the better it will be for everyone who wants to benefit from the medicinal uses of the plant. Several bills already exist that would reclassify marijuana or de-schedule it altogether and open the doors for researchers who are looking to explore the plant’s medicinal purposes in more detail.
Nonetheless, other countries around the world continue to conduct research on the benefits of marijuana and researchers are looking to start human trials that will explore the effects of low doses of THC on the elderly brain. The success of these trials could start helping people to combat some of the devastating effects of aging within a very short period of time.