As we get older, all processes in our bodies tend to become slower. This is true even for our cognitive processes. With age, we may start forgetting things as our memory functions decline. We may also find it more difficult to learn new things or focus our attention on more than one thing at a time. Although this is normal, many people may want to avoid or slow down their brain ageing.
Studies on cannabis and its benefits have been ongoing for decades. Preliminary results have shown that cannabis can help with a variety of therapeutic remedies including promoting better sleep, assisting muscle recovery after exercise and even alleviating some allergy symptoms. And a new benefit has been added to the list. The active ingredient Cannabinol (CBN), and other derivatives of the cannabis plant, such as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are indicating that they can protect against the ageing of brain cells. Keep reading to learn more about how these derivatives have shown their potential in preventing oxidative damage to brain cells, which ultimately slows down their ageing process, and assists with mild cognitive impairments.
What is considered normal brain ageing?
The brain generally faces changes as it ages. These normal changes include:
- Mass shrinkage: certain parts of the brain start shrinking with age. These include the hippocampus and the frontal lobe, which are central to learning and storing memories.
- Declining synapses: these form part of the system that controls communication between the neurons in the brain and the neurons in the rest of the body. Age may result in less effective communication as cognitive processing becomes slower.
- A decline in the neurotransmitter systems: the brain uses chemicals to transmit messages to the rest of the body. Researchers believe that the brain generates less of these messenger chemicals and so they diminish over time.
Decrease in blood flow: the volume of water in our bodies reduces as we age, resulting in a reduction in blood. Because of this, blood flow, and subsequently oxygen, to the brain decreases.
These changes that occur with brain ageing can affect the way we think, our memory and the way we process memories, as well as our learning capabilities.
How does CBN protect brain cells from ageing?
A study conducted by Salk researchers has found that the active ingredient CBN from the cannabis Sativa plant can prevent oxidative damage to cells, as well as preserve the functions of the mitochondria i.e. the generation of chemicals that provide energy for the cell. The researchers studied the cell death patterns, also known as ferroptosis or oxytosis, which are thought to be the cause of conditions like Alzheimer’s. The cell gradually dies due to the loss of an antioxidant called glutathione. Because of glutathione depletion, the lipids, or fats, are oxidised causing neural damage to the cells and they eventually die.
The researchers at Salk found that, when treated with CBN, nerve cells were protected from oxidative stress. They also noted that CBN was able to help protect the mitochondria during oxidation. Usually what happens is the mitochondria curls up like a doughnut when exposed to oxidative stress. But when treated with CBN, this curling was prevented and the mitochondria were able to continue functioning well. The curling of mitochondria is what is seen in ageing brain cells taken from people with Alzheimer’s disease. It is because of this link that the researchers suggest that CBN treatment can help cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are also linked to glutathione loss. CBN also doesn’t produce psychoactive responses so it doesn’t result in a patient getting high. Among these benefits is also the potential ability to apply CBN effects to other tissues and cells in the body. But the researchers argue that more research and clinical trials are still needed to see if their findings can be reproduced.
How does THC protect brain cells from ageing?
THC is known as one of the main cannabis derivatives that have psychoactive properties. Because of this, and depending on its concentration levels, THC can cause cognitive impairment. But a study (subscription required) published in Nature Medicine showed that the drug may affect older users differently compared to younger users. According to a report in Nature Medicine, researchers have found that low doses of THC appeared to reverse the changes related to the decline in cognitive processes due to brain ageing.
The study compared the cognitive processes of young and elderly mice in different scenarios. One of the tests was for the mice to find a safe platform in a water maze. Both generations were tested in the maze without THC, i.e. the control, and with THC. The older mice, when not on THC, performed worse than the young mice not on THC, as was expected. However, when given the dose of THC, the older mice performed just as well as the young mice, not on THC. It was also found that the number of links between the nerve cells in the brain had increased, which are important when learning new information. These results presented the researchers with the possibility that THC has anti-ageing properties in brain cells.
The next step is to hold clinical trials on humans to see if the same results can be replicated and to truly investigate if THC has the same anti-ageing effects on the human brain and cognitive processes.
The brain and cognitive processes naturally begin to decline as we get older. This degeneration can result in slower learning and difficulty in remembering things and focusing our attention. It can also be a cause of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkison’s. However, current research has shown some promise in the use of cannabinoids such as CBN and THC in helping reverse the brain ageing process. More research and clinical trials are still needed, but scientists are holding out hope and feeling positive that these compounds will also be able to help with cognitive impairment such as dementia.
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