When someone talks about marijuana’s medicinal purposes, it often prompts guffaws. But for someone who has cancer and is suffering from pain, marijuana is no joke. Medical cannabis has successfully been used by sufferers of a number of chronic ailments, not only cancer but post-traumatic stress disorder, to alleviate pain, insomnia, lack of appetite, and other symptoms.
Now a new study has found that very low doses of THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana — protects the brain from long-term cognitive damage in the wake of injury from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), seizures, or toxic drugs.
Now Prof. Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University’s Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine says that THC has neuroprotective qualities as well, according to a press release from the university.
Earlier studies focused on injecting high doses of THC within a very short time frame — about 30 minutes — before or after injury.
But Sarne’s current research, published in the journals Behavioural Brain Research and Experimental Brain Research, found that even extremely low doses of THC — around 1,000 to 10,000 times less than that in a conventional marijuana cigarette — administered over a wide window of 1 to 7 days before or 1 to 3 days after injury — can jump start biochemical processes that protect brain cells and preserve cognitive function over time, according to the press release.
This treatment could be applicable to many cases of brain injury and be safer over time, Sarne said.
Sarne and his fellow researchers discovered that low doses of the THC had a big impact on cell signalling, preventing cell death and promoting growth factors, according to the press release. That led to a series of experiments designed to test the neuroprotective ability of THC in response to various brain injuries.
Researchers injected mice with a single low dose of THC either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. A control group of mice sustained brain injury but did not receive the THC treatment.
“When the mice were examined 3 to 7 weeks after initial injury, recipients of the THC treatment performed better in behavioral tests measuring learning and memory,” the release said.
Additionally, biochemical studies showed heightened amounts of neuroprotective chemicals in the treatment group compared to the control group.
The use of THC can prevent long-term cognitive damage that results from brain injury, researchers concluded.
“One explanation for this effect is pre- and post-conditioning, whereby the drug causes minute damage to the brain to build resistance and trigger protective measures in the face of much more severe injury,” the release said, attributing that explanaion to Prof. Sarne.
“The low dosage of THC is crucial to initiating this process without causing too much initial damage,” according to the release.
Sarne claimed there are several practical benefits to this treatment plan. “Due to the long therapeutic time window, this treatment can be used not only to treat injury after the fact, but also to prevent injury that might occur in the future,” the release said.
“For example, cardiopulmonary heart-lung machines used in open heart surgery carry the risk of interrupting the blood supply to the brain, and the drug can be delivered beforehand as a preventive measure,” according to the release. “In addition, the low dosage makes it safe for regular use in patients at constant risk of brain injury, such as epileptics or people at a high risk of heart attack.”
Sarne is working in collaboration with Prof. Edith Hochhauser of the Rabin Medical Center to test the ability of low doses of THC to prevent damage to the heart.
“Preliminary results indicate that they will find the same protective phenomenon in relation to cardiac ischemia, in which the heart muscle receives insufficient blood flow,” the release said.