Study: A Little Cannabis a Day Could Keep Dementia at Bay

Tired of stereotypes? New research suggests that cannabis may actually have a positive effect on memory. That's quite the change from the conventional idea of a spaced-out cannabis user.

In a recent study, biologists found that giving mice low doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, actually restored their cognitive function.

The month-long study compared mice at various stages of life: 2 months (young), 12 months (mature) and 18 months (elderly). Some mice from each age group were treated with regular doses of THC, while the rest were left untreated. The mice were then tested in maze-like experiments for memory and learning skills.

You'd expect the younger mice to do well, and they aced the tests. Older untreated mice struggled, however. While THC impaired cognitive ability in younger mice, it caused a drastic performance improvement for the older ones. Even at such a low dose, researchers remarked, the effect was striking and lasted several weeks.

“It seems that the young brain becomes old and the old brain becomes young,” said study coauthor Andras Bilkei-Gorzo from the University of Bonn in Germany, which spearheaded the research. The performance of older, THC-infused mice was so good, in fact, that it matched the performance of their drug-free younger counterparts.

What Could These Results Mean for Medical Cannabis Patients?

Disclaimer: Mice are not people (surprise, surprise). Mice are often used in medical testing for their genetic, biological, and behavioral resemblance to humans, but results for mice aren’t necessarily the same for humans. Also, the amount of THC tested on the mice was too low to induce a “high,” suggesting recreational use of cannabis wouldn’t be the answer.

All the same, these are interesting findings for research on how cannabis affects living organisms in general. By showing the impact of cannabis on older peoples’ brains, which is rarely studied, the research could be especially valuable in a medical context.

“Cannabis preparations and THC are used for medicinal purposes. They have an excellent safety record and do not produce adverse side-effects when administered at a low dose to older individuals,” study authors wrote. “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.”

So, is medical cannabis treatment even better than we thought? Potentially. Most research up till now shows that the decline of the humans’ endocannabinoid system (the body’s natural receptors for regulating mood and memory) is inevitable. Small, daily doses of cannabis are not necessarily the new secret to eternal youth, but the drug’s ability to slow down cognitive degeneration could be pretty revolutionary for older medical cannabis patients.

“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,” Bilkei-Gorzo added.

Although we still have a lot to learn about how cannabis affects the body, we already know enough about its valuable medical benefits to be hopeful. Researchers at the University of Bonn plan to continue their work in a clinical trial later this year. It’s early days, but we look forward to seeing what avenues this research opens up.

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