“There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of disease as now,
and all their discoveries are tending toward the simple truth
that you can’t improve on nature.”
—Thomas Edison (1847—1931), American Inventor and Entrepreneur
What would you guess is the fastest growing group of cannabis consumers in the country? It’s senior citizens; according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the number of Americans who consume cannabis, who are age 65 and up, has skyrocketed 333 percent between 2002 and 2014.
This group of folks looks to be onto something too.
Cannabis Found to Reverse Aging in the Elderly Brain
A new study at the University of Bonn in Germany, in collaboration with a team from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that cannabis reverses aging in the elderly brain.
Administering a low-dose of cannabis to three different groups of mice (2-months old, 12-months old, and 18-months old), over the course of 1 month, the researchers found that the elderly mice (i.e. the 18-month group) were able to perform at the same level as the control group of young mice (i.e. the 2-month group). The elderly mice, Forbes writes, “struggled with tasks as consistent with their brain ages at first, but saw a huge increase in performance with THC infusions that raised their skill level up to young-mouse (drug free) standards and continued for weeks afterward.”
The performance improvement was in stark contrast to the performance of the control group of elderly mice. The control group was given a placebo, and exhibited the natural decreased performance and memory losses corresponding to their age. (These animals normally have a life expectancy of about 24 months, but show pronounced cognitive decline after about 12 months.)
The lead author of the study, neurobiology Professor Andreas Zimmer from the Institute of Molecular Psychiatry at the University of Bonn, said, “The treatment completely reversed the loss of performance in the old animals. We repeated these experiments many times. It’s a very robust and profound effect.”
Eager to discover precisely what happened to the brains of the elderly mice that led to the improved performance effect from the cannabis treatment, the researchers next examined the tissue and gene activity in the brains of the mice. What they found was even more shocking: The molecular signature of the brains of the elderly mice had changed. They found notable changes in those areas relevant to learning and memory. The brains of the elderly mice no longer corresponded with mice of their age, but instead matched those of the young mice. What’s even more remarkable is that their brains actually grew. “Specifically,” writes Dr. Joseph Mercola, “neurons in the hippocampus grew more synaptic spines—points of contact necessary for communication between neurons.”
This came as a surprise to the researchers who did not anticipate the extraordinary changes in the brain, or how similar they might look to the control group of young, untreated mice. Miraculously, Zimmer said, “It looked as though the THC treatment turned back the molecular clock.”
According to neuroscientist Stephani Sutherland, “The findings raise the intriguing possibility THC and other ‘cannabinoids’ might act as anti-aging molecules in the brain.” Zameel Cader, clinical neuroscience professor at Oxford University (which recently launched its own $12 million cannabis research program) believes this may be relevant not just to an aging brain, but other brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease as well as other conditions that lead to cognitive decline.
The research scientists are equally excited about the possibilities for cannabis as a potential treatment protocol. “Cannabis preparations,” they conclude, “have an excellent safety record and do not produce adverse side-effects when administered at a low dose to older individuals. Thus, chronic, low-dose treatment with THC or cannabis extracts could be a potential strategy to slow down or even to reverse cognitive decline in the elderly.”
“These results reveal a profound, long-lasting improvement of cognitive performance resulting from a low dose of THC treatment,” noted the scientists. In the words of co-author Andras Bilkei-Gorzo, “If we can rejuvenate the brain so that everybody gets five to 10 more years without needing extra care then that is more than we could have imagined.”
It’s worth noting that the mice were treated to “low” doses of cannabis. Given the cannabinoid system’s role in preserving homeostasis, it is unlikely that a higher dose would have a stronger effect on the learning and memory of the elderly brain, although we won’t know for sure without further research.
As you might expect, sometimes findings with mice prove not to apply to human subjects, but, as Oxford’s Cader points out, the differences this study demonstrates between the effect of cannabis on younger and older animals says a lot about the differences between younger and older brains.
The research teams have already begun planning studies with human subjects.
How Cannabis Fights Against Aging in the Brain
The more scientists understand about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system in the human body, the more they understand why cannabis is proving to be such an effective treatment for such a remarkable array of human conditions and diseases. The endocannabinoid system (named for the plant—cannabis—that led to its discovery by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam in 1964) is now believed to be the most extensive receptor system in the human body; with receptors (which are embedded in cell membranes) in the brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system, as well as the connective tissues, glands, and immune cells (but not in the brain stem—which controls the heart and lungs, and, thereby, helps to explain why it’s impossible to overdose on cannabis).
While the tasks vary depending on the location in the body, the overall purpose of the endocannabinoid system is always the same: Homeostasis. In essence, Dr. Dustin Sulak of NORML explains, whatever the fluctuations faced in the external environment, the endocannabinoid system works to maintain a stable internal environment. “Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life,” he writes, “from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond.”
More specifically, cannabis is believed to fight aging in the brain in at least three specific ways:
- Cannabis is an Antioxidant. First, the two most well-known cannabinoids—THC and CBD—are now understood to be potent antioxidants. According to a 2016 report published by the Royal Society in the UK: “One of the most surprising and recent revelations about cannabinoids are their capability to perform as antioxidants in the brain. German experts have found that the brain’s cannabinoid system has the capability of restoring impaired brain cells, while developing new ones. Cannabinoids may curb the effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and possibly more.
Prior research has found evidence that cannabis, by activating the cannabinoid system in the brain, TIME reports, “may trigger a sort of anti-oxidant cleanse, removing damaged cells and improving the efficiency of the mitochondria, the energy source that powers cells, ultimately leading to a more robustly functioning brain.”
- Cannabis is an Anti-Inflammatory. Inflammation in the brain is understood to be one of the culprits behind a number of degenerative brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Cannabis, meanwhile, has been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. The activation of cannabinoid receptors in the brain is believed to reduce inflammation in the brain. In fact, as noted by Gary Wenk, a professor of neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University, “I’ve been trying to find a drug that will reduce brain inflammation and restore cognitive function in rats for over 25 years; cannabinoids are the first and only class of drugs that have ever been effective.”The Salk Institute in San Diego also found cannabis to work as an anti-inflammatory in the brain, but that’s not all. “Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” said Professor David Schubert of the Salk Institute, “we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells.” This accumulation is believed to be one of the central causes of Alzheimer’s disease, which leads to the third way in which cannabis can help.
- Cannabis is Neuroprotective. The third way that cannabis is understood to fight aging in the brain is through its neuroprotective properties. As we age, Zimmer says, “the activity of the endogenous cannabinoid system goes down—and that coincides with signs of aging in the brain.” This decrease in activity, or “cannabinoid deficiency,” reports University of Colorado biologist Dr. Robert Melamede, is also “implicated in a number of age-related illnesses.” But cannabis stimulates the cannabinoid system, and, as Andras Bilkei-Gorzo of the University of Bonn in Germany explains, “cannabinoid system activity is neuroprotective.” Accordingly, consuming cannabis and, thereby, stimulating the cannabinoid system, he says, “could be a promising strategy for slowing down the progression of brain aging and for alleviating the symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders.”
The Burning Need for Cannabis Research
Despite the remarkable advances in our scientific understanding of cannabis, powerful politicians and public officials—driven largely by special interests, and willful ignorance—continue to stand in the way of sensible legislation, and meaningful reform, making it all but impossible to conduct rigorous cannabis research.
Surprisingly, it’s not only the challenges of conducting research that keeps the cannabis science from advancing more rapidly. It’s also the damage of years of rumors and propaganda about the cannabis plant. After spending nearly a quarter of a century searching for a way to reduce inflammation in the brain—and then finding it in cannabis—Professor Wenk has now abandoned the pursuit. “In my experience,” Wenk reports, “working in this area is like touching the third rail. I get hate and love mails that are bizarre…Some of my colleagues have left the area after seeing their names in the National Enquirer… I do not blame a war on marijuana but rather the public’s prejudice and extreme bias. I’ve now discontinued my research on this system.” After facing such prolonged resistance, Wenk is nevertheless optimistic. There are some conditions that only cannabinoids seem to address he said. Moreover, he adds, “I think that the perception about this drug is changing and in the future people will be less fearful.”