The cannabis compound CBN has the potential to treat age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, according to new research.
Published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, the lab study tested how CBN affected an intracellular process known contribute to Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
The researchers found that CBN disrupted this process and protected the cells’ mitochondria, which produce the cells’ energy.
The powerhouse of the cell
Diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s partly develop because many cells in a person’s brain have died. One chemical avenue for this kind of cell death is called ferroptosis. This process occurs after a cell has accumulated too many oxidatively damaged phospholipids because its standard defenses, its glutathione-dependent antioxidant defenses, have waned.
The research team from the Salk Institute, California, set out to test whether CBN could halt this ferroptosis process and keep cells alive.
To do this, the team injected some cultured cells with synthetic CBN and left others without. They then incubated both groups of cells with RSL3, a chemical that initiates cell death. After 16 hours, the vitality of the cells was assessed under a microscope and via a standard metabolic activity assay.
While many of the cells only treated with RSL3 had died, the cells treated with RSL3 and CBN all appeared intact, seemingly unaffected by the killer chemical.
The researchers thus deduced that the cannabis compound had blocked the ferroptosis process that the RSL3 would otherwise have caused.
The research team also performed a similar test specifically on mitochondria, the small units of a cell that provide its energy. They observed that the mitochondria purely treated with RSL3 became fragmented and malformed, while the mitochondria treated with RSL3 and CBN appeared healthy and more widespread.
“The new findings uncover that CBN maintains mitochondrial homeostasis against oxytosis/ferroptosis,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
As such, the researchers say that CBN could serve as the basis for future drug treatments for neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and more studies and trials should be conducted to investigate this possibility.
“Our study offers strong evidence that non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids such as CBN can elicit neuroprotective actions independent of the canonical CB1/CB2 pathway and that they could serve as valuable CNS [central nervous system] drug leads,” they write.
“Future efforts on target identification […] as well as in vivo efficacy studies in animal models should pave the way for the development of new drug candidates derived from CBN or other non-psychoactive cannabinoids to treat age-associated neurodegenerative diseases.”
Cannabis and neurodegenerative diseases
Previous studies have also found links between cannabis compounds and the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Published last year in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, one placebo-controlled, randomized trial found that CBD helped improve participants’ verbal episodic memory (the ability to remember a series of words). In their paper, the researchers from the University of Basel thus opined that CBD could help treat the memory impairments that often come with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
Another paper published in 2020 found that a CBD derivative could act on two proteins, NRF2 and BACH1, both linked to neurodegenerative diseases.
Speaking to Analytical Cannabis at the time, Laureano de la Vega, co-lead author of the study and group leader at the University of Dundee School of Medicine, remarked that:
“As NRF2 and BACH1 are promising targets in some neurodegenerative diseases, we tested here whether the compound was active an in vitro model relevant to neurodegenerative disease conditions. The compound showed a protective effect against neuronal cell death, and thus the potential use of this compound for neurodegenerative diseases.”
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