Why Is The Federal Government Roadblocking Crucial Alzheimer’s Research?

Is cannabis the next major treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease? Unfortunately, thanks to federal research restrictions, we may not know for quite a while.

Mar 15, 2017

In the last five years, there have been some impressive studies on cannabis and Alzheimer’s Disease. Earlier this year, researchers at the Salk Institute discovered that the primary psychoactive in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), successfully reduced both inflammation and decreased amyloid plaque buildup in laboratory experiments. This finding, along with the well-known fact that cannabis contains neuroprotective compounds, is an amazing new research arena in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease, but there’s one major problem: the federal government.

Cannabis and Alzheimer’s: There’s potential

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In the lab, researchers have made a crucial discovery about THC. In cells cultured outside of the body, THC treatment has successfully reduced inflammation in brain cells (neurons).

However, the anti-inflammatory properties of THC is not the team’s only exciting discovery. The cannabinoid reduces both inflammation and the concentrations of amyloid beta (Aβ), a protein that builds up and forms a “plaque”, which prevents neurons from properly communicating with each other.

Over time, this plaque buildup and corresponding degeneration cause the severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, which afflict nearly 46.8 million people worldwide, not including the millions of family, friends, and caretakers also affected by the disease on a daily basis.

Earlier research published in 2006 also found that THC treatment successfully reduced amyloid beta. In fact, the herbal compound was more effective at reducing the plaque than common Alzheimer’s medications. The study authors write:

Compared to currently approved drugs prescribed for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, THC is a considerably superior inhibitor of aggregation.

Whether or not THC can effectively treat the disease in humans in unknown. But, at least one small human study has found that treatment with a synthetic THC medication, dronabinol, successfully reduced nighttime agitation in six patients with severe dementia.

Another review of pre-clinical literature suggests that cannabis compounds may also kickstart the brain’s natural repair mechanisms, a phenomenon that has also been found in rodents treated with cannabinoids after a traumatic brain injury.

Scientists blocked from access to cannabis

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While these findings are astounding, researchers are still barred from legally studying the plant in the United States and elsewhere around the world. In America, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance.

The schedule 1 classification means cannabis is considered a harmful substance with no absolutely medicinal value. Those that possess, cultivate and distribute the plant are subject to criminal prosecution by federal and many state governments.

This also means that scientists who study the plant can be subject to the same federal prosecution as anyone else.

Not to mention, due to the herb’s illicit status, the federal government does not fund research projects on the cannabis plant or its chemical constituents, minus synthetic pharmaceutical cannabinoids or cannabis compounds used in a concentration of under a milligram.

Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) did agree to allow more research institutes study the plant. Previously, only one institution, the University of Mississippi, has been able to cultivate the plant for government-sanctioned research.

Yet, it is difficult to tell at the present moment what impact this new leniency will actually have on cannabis research.

Thus far, permission to study cannabis has not been granted for the Salk Institute, the institution that has produced some of the most promising preclinical research on cannabis and Alzheimer’s Disease. Dr. David Schubert, senior scientist for the research at Salk, told CNBC:

It’s so blatantly obvious that this plant should be studied in greater detail, and yet we have this major roadblock stopping it. It’s hard enough to get funding without having to worry about legal issues on top of it. It’s odd and somewhat demoralizing.

To continue their research, the Salk Institute would need to secure the funds to advance their studies to rodent models, and then eventually to clinical human trials. However, acquiring cannabis for their next steps is no easy task.

Back in December, the team applied for permission to cultivate the plant from the DEA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Unfortunately, as CNBC reports, they are currently unable to move forward with their work. They will remain stagnated until federal government agencies process, and hopefully, approve their applications.

Until then, both medical researchers and the public will remain barred from safe access to a potentially brain-saving natural remedy.

Want to do something about it? Contact your representative and let them know that you support cannabis reform, and you wish that they would, too. Find your representative on house.gov. 

Mar 15, 2017