Medical Marijuana For Your Memory? Research Says Maybe

Medical use of marijuana has been gaining legal status and popularity throughout the United States. Currently, it is most frequently known for its medicinal purposes of curbing nausea and reducing pain for those with chronic diseases, cancer or glaucoma. However, new research from the University of South Florida (USF) indicates that a chemical compound in marijuana could slow or halt the progression of memory loss commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

A new publication in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that very small doses of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) slows the buildup of beta-amyloid protein. The presence of this protein, which builds up to form plaques or tangles in the brain, is the way we presently diagnose individuals with Alzheimer’s.

The degenerative disease is estimated to affect 5.2 million Americans at any time, with more than 200,000 of those being under the age of 65. Additionally, given the aging population in the U.S. and abroad, this number is drastically increasing. The Alzheimer’s Association claims that by 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, to as many as 16 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease.

With growing acceptance of medical marijuana utilization, the momentum for legalizing medical marijuana could continue to increase, especially with recent medical research. Results of a preclinical trial at USF’s Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute show that low traces of THC can enhance mitochondrial function. “THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function,” said the study’s lead author, neuroscientist Chuanhai Cao, PhD.

Given that Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive condition in the nation, with 2014 direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer’s totaling an estimated $214 billion - including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid – any relief is welcome. These costs are remarkably exorbitant when uncompensated family care and undiagnosed individuals are included.

While this USF research is groundbreaking information, it is not the first study to have similar results. In 2006 the Scripps Research Institute also found that THC, the key ingredient of marijuana, inhibited the primary plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. For years the link has been suspected, but only recently has it been brought to the forefront of medical research.

Despite the evidence in support of THC as a deterrent for the progression of degenerative memory loss, the policy world has been slow to respond. Decades have gone by with little movement on the legalization of marijuana until recently, and states have outright rejected medical marijuana as an option. In New Mexico for example, 34,000 residents who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative dementias were denied access when the Secretary of Health refused to add them to a list of qualifying conditions.

In response, the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board has released language suggesting that the debilitating impact neurodegenerative diseases have on the elderly population is reason enough for legalization, and that medical marijuana should be part of a larger comprehensive approach to support elders’ quality of life.

With the ever-evolving landscape for medical use of marijuana within states, it is not implausible that those with progressive memory loss will soon be able to access THC or other compounds that are safe to assist in their disease treatment and planning. Before this can be universally accepted though, the research conducted by USF will have to be validated and replicated.


Nicole Fisher is a health policy and human rights advisor who specializes in bridging health care access and quality with technology and policy.

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