Does Cannabis Heal The Brain After A Concussion?

Many NFL players have come out in support of medical cannabis. But, does it really help the brain heal after injury and repair damage from a concussion?

Nov 1, 2016 - Anna Wilcox

A concussion is a minor traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a blow to the skull. A person can also suffer deleterious effects from sub-concussions, which are repeated minor assaults to the head. These assaults can lead to a TBI. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to prevent damage from concussions before they occur? What about a way to speed up the healing process? Medical scientists point to cannabis as a potential solution. But, can the herb really heal a concussion? 

Does cannabis heal concussions?

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Cannabis has shown a wealth of potential in traumatic brain injury. Unique properties of the herb may help the brain repair itself after trauma, including trauma from a concussion. Overall, there are three main characteristics that make cannabis a promising treatment for concussions and other forms of head trauma. These include,

1. Reduced brain inflammation

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The cannabis plant contains neuroprotective antioxidants. These neuroprotectants have many functions, including preventing stress-related damage and reducing inflammation in the brain. One major impact of a concussion or any sort of head trauma is increased neural inflammation.

A 2014 study from Tel Aviv University found that microdoses of psychoactive THC reduced brain swelling in rodent models. The researchers write,

Our results suggest that an ultralow dose of THC that lacks any psychotrophic activity protects the brain from neuroinflammation-induced cognitive damage and might be used as an effective drug for the treatment of neuroinflammatory conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases.

2. Neuroprotection

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These same anti-inflammatory effects may prove very useful in treating a concussion. Surprisingly, the US government also thinks that cannabis is a promising treatment for head injury. The Feds currently hold a patent on nonpsychoactive CBD as a neuroprotective agent.

In the patent application, they write,

The cannabinoids [in cannabis] are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.

So, even the US government admits that compounds in the cannabis plant may decrease the damage from head and brain trauma, as well as from strokes, oxygen deprivation, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Further, research from 2013 found that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a crucial role in the brain’s ability to repair itself.  The ECS is the pathway in which cannabis engages with the body. The study articulates that therapeutic cannabinoids may provide protection against nerve cell damage after acute injury.

3. Pre-treatment with cannabis prevents damage

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There is some evidence that pre-treatment with cannabis can help protect against possible concussions associated with certain occupations. These include professional athletics, horseback riding, and other lifestyle activities that make a person more susceptible to concussions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean go out and smoke some herb every day. Rather, this may be a case where having a little CBD oil on hand or using it as a dietary supplement may be beneficial. A vape sesh here and there might not be harmful either.

In an interview with Fox News, Dean Petkanas, CEO of KannaLife Sciences, explains,

You have a repository of chemicals in the plant. But, more prominantly we’ve found in some preclinical research that cannabidiol (CBD) acts as a neuroprotectant. So, in the parlence of pharmaceutical science, we could be using that as a prophilaxis against repetative concussive injury.

Simply stated, pharmaceutical companies are hoping to make drugs that would prevent brain damage from concussions before they happen.

While much of the research has focused on CBD, preclinical research shows that psychoactive THC may be helpful as well. A 2014 study found that patients with traumatic brain injury who had detectable levels of THC in their systems at the time of an accident were less likely to die from brain trauma.

Cannabis and post-concussion syndrome

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Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) is a complex condition that sometimes follows a concussion. The symptoms of PCS can last for months after the initial brain injury.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms include,

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration and memory
  • Noise and light sensitivity

Unfortunately, PCS is also blamed for many persisting psychiatric problems after a concussion. Risks for depression and suicide increase after head trauma. Recent research has found that even one concussion may triple the long-term risk of suicide.

Cannabis therapies may be able to improve PCS symptoms. One 2012 rodent study  suggested that cannabinoid treatments may help improve memory and cognitive performance after stress-related neuropsychiatric conditions.

Additional rodent studies have found that CBD is an extremely fast-acting antidepressant. Many conventional pharmaceutical options take up to 6 weeks to kick in. In this study, rodents under stress that were treated with CBD showed improvements just minutes after their first dose. CBD continued to work over time.

Cannabis and the NFL

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National Football League (NFL) players wear helmets for a reason. Though, as recent lawsuits show, a little padding is not enough to protect against the potentially life-long damage caused concussive and sub-concussive head trauma. Over the past few years, some experts have hypothesized that external protection is not enough.

Legendary psychiatrist Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Professor emeritus at Harvard University, thinks that the NFL should study medical cannabis.

After publishing an open letter explaining his position, he told Fusion,

The NFL should pay attention to the fact that we are now pretty confident that cannabis, marijuana, has as a medicine, some qualities about which make it clear that it is neuroprotective.

In a way, compounds in cannabis are like internal shock absorbers, checking back the damage sustained with a concussion and other forms of head trauma.

We’re talking about a particular formulation of the cannabinoids. That is, a formulation which is largely made of CBD, or cannabidiol, and to a much lesser exent, tetrahydrocannabinol. And of course, along with it, the kinds of other phytochemicals like terpeneoids.

Grinspoon goes on to state that this cannabis formulation is completely nonpsychoactive. NFL players and anyone else suffering a concussion can reap the benefits of cannabis without any added haziness from a psychoactive high. Instead, the high-CBD formulation is much more like a high-quality hemp extract.

More research on cannabis and concussion and PCS are sorely needed. But, as Grinspoon suggests, many medical scientists have confidence that the herb has some serious brain-healing potential.

Now, cannabis hopefuls just need governments around the world to permit access to the plant.

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