Scientists from Salk Institute say the cannabinoids found in cannabis show considerable promise for treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but laws make research difficult.
The cannabinoids found in cannabis could effectively aid in the removal of dangerous protein fragments in the brain that are associated with dementia disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, according to researchers from Salk Institute. While cannabis has shown exciting promise, restrictive federal laws have obstructed more significant breakthroughs.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that has been linked to the buildup of toxic protein fragments called plaques, which stick between neurons and interfere with cell communication and the delivery of nutrients. Affecting more than 5 million Americans, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and will cost the nation an estimated $259 billion in 2017.
In a study conducted last year, researchers from Salk Institute, a renowned biomedical research facility in California, found that the administration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a major active cannabinoid, effectively broke down the buildup of beta-amyloid protein plaques and reduced cell inflammation. The scientists used altered laboratory-grown human neurons to create the buildup of plaques.
The next step for the Salk Institute researchers is to conduct tests on mice and, if the results are encouraging, move on to human trials. To do so, however, the researchers must overcome an onslaught of legislative and logistical hurdles. Because cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I substance, anyone interested in studying its effects must obtain a Schedule I research registration from the DEA and, in most states, a Schedule I research license from a state-controlled drugs agency. Cannabis material has to be obtained from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the sole source of federally legal, research-grade cannabis. These extra obstacles can push out the starting date of research projects by six months.
Because the Salk Institute is federally funded, it must abide by federal law. Researchers were previously able to get away without obtaining the proper registration by working with about a milligram of cannabinoids from chromatography standards found in methanol.
The study’s lead author, Professor David Schubert, believes that he and his team would have even more breakthroughs if their efforts weren’t hindered by restrictions caused by cannabis being classified as a Schedule I substance.
“It’s a totally unexplored area, because researchers have been stopped by the DEA, due to the way the agency classifies marijuana,” Schubert told CNBC. “The result is that basically no clinical trials have been held to treat the use of marijuana-based drugs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s or any other neurodegenerative disease. It’s not right that they have that type of say over something that could be very useful.
“People are dying of this disease, and there is nothing out there for them… Marijuana is not physically addictive, although it can be psychologically addictive like, sugar, salt and fat, none of which are classified as Schedule I drugs. It’s ridiculous when in California anyone can legally go down to the corner store and just buy marijuana.”
The Salk Institute submitted their Schedule I application to the DEA in December and is still waiting for approval.
“It’s so blatantly obvious that this plant should be studied in greater detail and yet we have this major roadblock stopping it,” said Schubert. “It’s hard enough to get funding without having to worry about legal issues on top of it. It’s odd and somewhat demoralizing.”
Earlier research has also found evidence that cannabinoids may significantly reduce plaque buildup, reduce inflammation and encourage the birth of new cells.