A new study on marijuana offers a surprising new take on cannabis and health — it may actually improve memory.
In an animal study, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany discovered that regular administration of THC among mice led to a significant reversal in the natural aging process of the brain, virtually restoring older mice’s cognitive levels to that of younger mice.
“The treatment completely reversed the loss of performance in the old animals,” reported study author Andreas Zimmer, a professor with the Institute of Molecular Psychiatry at the University of Bonn.
The researchers believe that tapping into the brain’s natural learning system — and augmenting it with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana — may hold promise for boosting the mental prowess of human beings. The THC-based treatment may also help limit the tremendous burden of dementia and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A Closeup of the Cognitive Process
The brains of mice as well as humans feature cannabinoid receptors, which are proteins that enable THC substances to latch on within the brain. Previous research has shown that the lack of these receptors leads to rapid cognitive decline, which occurs on a faster scale than when the receptors are present.
“With increasing age, the quantity of the cannabinoids naturally formed in the brain reduces,” said Zimmer. “When the activity of the cannabinoid system declines, we find rapid aging in the brain.”
The researchers discovered that by administering THC they could basically replicate the memory-boosting effects of natural cannabinoids that are found in the body.
To gain their findings, the study authors provided low doses of THC over a four-week period to mice that were aged two months, 12 months and 18 months. Because mice age relatively quickly, their accelerated decline in physical health, including brain functioning, provides a telling representation of the aging process in humans.
Following the month-long administration of THC, the researchers ran tests on learning capacity and memory performance and found that the brain health of the 12- and 18-month-old mice that were given THC looked the same as the two-month-old mice. The researchers found no signs of age-related memory loss in those mice, which differed from the normal aging they witnessed in mice that received a non-THC placebo treatment.
“It looked as though the THC treatment turned back the molecular clock,” said Zimmer.
In fact, upon closer inspection, the researchers noted that “the molecular signature no longer corresponded to that of old animals, but was instead very similar to that of young animals.” For example, the communication ability of nerve cells in the brain had increased after the THC treatment. The mice given THC saw restored gene activity in the hippocampus portion of the brain, which is known as the memory creation and storage center.
Given the results of the study, the researchers plan to move forward with clinical trials in humans. While a similar reaction remains unknown, the researchers believe their work may be a strong precursor for dementia-related treatment options.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.