November 22, 2008

Could Marijuana Protect Short Term Memory in Aging Brains?

Current research being done at the University of Ohio seems to indicate that specific compounds found in marijuana could protect short-term memory in the brains of older mammals — at least rats. A synthetic analog of tetrahydrocannabinol may act on brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure responsible for short-term memory, to prompt generation of new cells and reduce inflammation that interferes with normal functioning. The trick is that once impairment has already begun, it can't be reversed.

Scientists are high on idea that marijuana reduces memory impairment

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The more research they do, the more evidence Ohio State University scientists find that specific elements of marijuana can be good for the aging brain by reducing inflammation there and possibly even stimulating the formation of new brain cells.

The research suggests that the development of a legal drug that contains certain properties similar to those in marijuana might help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Though the exact cause of Alzheimer's remains unknown, chronic inflammation in the brain is believed to contribute to memory impairment.

Any new drug's properties would resemble those of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, but would not share its high-producing effects. THC joins nicotine, alcohol and caffeine as agents that, in moderation, have shown some protection against inflammation in the brain that might translate to better memory late in life.

"It's not that everything immoral is good for the brain. It's just that there are some substances that millions of people for thousands of years have used in billions of doses, and we're noticing there's a little signal above all the noise," said Gary Wenk, professor of psychology at Ohio State and principal investigator on the research.

Wenk's work has already shown that a THC-like synthetic drug can improve memory in animals. Now his team is trying to find out exactly how it works in the brain.
Immoral? What makes getting high immoral?
"When we're young, we reproduce neurons and our memory works fine. When we age, the process slows down, so we have a decrease in new cell formation in normal aging. You need those cells to come back and help form new memories, and we found that this THC-like agent can influence creation of those cells," said Yannick Marchalant, a study coauthor and research assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State...

"Could people smoke marijuana to prevent Alzheimer's disease if the disease is in their family? We're not saying that, but it might actually work. What we are saying is it appears that a safe, legal substance that mimics those important properties of marijuana can work on receptors in the brain to prevent memory impairments in aging. So that's really hopeful," Wenk said.
Wait... if it might work to simply use the real thing, why not just let 'em do it? Why do we need to develop a synthetic drug that will undoubtedly cost a lot more? If it's the smoking part (after all, inhaling particulate matter is never a good idea) that's bad, make brownies. Sugar-free, low-fat and loaded up up omega 3 oils, of course. Wouldn't some healthy pot brownies be more affordable than pills?

Personal note: Alzheimer's doesn't run in my family. I think I've had only one relative, my great-grandmother, who contracted it at all, and she got it so late in life that she passed away before it ever advanced much. Not much personal interest in this development, in other words.
..the researchers also determined that WIN acts on receptors known as CB1 and CB2, leading to the generation of new brain cells – a process known as neurogenesis. Those results led the scientists to speculate that the combination of lowered inflammation and neurogenesis is the reason the rats' memory improved after treatment with WIN.

The researchers are continuing to study the endocannabinoid system's role in regulating inflammation and neuron development. They are trying to zero in on the receptors that must be activated to produce the most benefits from any newly developed drug.

What they already know is THC alone isn't the answer.

"The end goal is not to recommend the use of THC in humans to reduce Alzheimer's," Marchalant said. "We need to find exactly which receptors are most crucial, and ideally lead to the development of drugs that specifically activate those receptors. We hope a compound can be found that can target both inflammation and neurogenesis, which would be the most efficient way to produce the best effects."
Well heck, you guys are no fun.

It's ironic that one of the traditional gripes against marijuana is that it impairs short-term memory and here we are reading about how it protects it. I suspect the trade-off is between the stimulation of neurogenesis obtained from small doses of the active ingredient(s) and the intoxication brought about by massive dosage. It's just like alcohol, perhaps. Nobody forgets their Saturday night after having a beer or two, but downing a six pack or three might well impair short-term memory. Of course, I'm no neurobiologist. I just think it's a bit silly to bring morality into the question.

Maybe just saying no wasn't such a good idea after all. As with many things, perhaps moderation is the key to deriving benefit.

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