Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. The result can be a wide range of debilitating motor, physical, and mental problems. But smoking a spliff might decrease this inflammation, scientists from Israel find.
In a new study published by Ewa Kozela, Ana Juknat, Neta Rimmerman and Zvi Vogel from Tel Aviv University found that some chemical compounds n marijuana can help treat MS-like diseases in mice by preventing inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.
Israel is a world-leader in marijuana research and its use for medicinal purposes.
“Inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response, but in cases like MS it gets out of hand,” says Kozela. “Our study looks at how compounds isolated from marijuana can be used to regulate inflammation to protect the nervous system and its functions.”
Israeli scientists Raphael Mechoulam discovered THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol in 1964 and with it kick-started the scientific study of the plant and its chemical constituents around the world. Since then, scientists have identified about 70 compounds — called cannabinoids — that are unique to cannabis and have interesting biological effects.
Besides THC, the most plentiful and potent cannabinoid in marijuana is cannabidiol, or CBD. The Tel Aviv esearchers are particularly interested in CBD, because it offers medicinal benefits without the controversial mind-altering effects of THC.
In a 2011 study, they showed that CBD helps treat MS-like symptoms in mice by preventing immune cells in their bodies from transforming and attacking the insulating covers of nerve cells in the spinal cord.
In the latest study, the researchers set out to see if the known anti-inflammatory properties of CBD and THC could also be applied to the treatment of inflammation associated with MS — and if so, how.
This time they turned to the immune system.
The researchers concluded that the presence of CBD or THC restrains the immune cells from triggering the production of inflammatory molecules and limits the molecules’ ability to reach and damage the brain and spinal cord.
Further research is needed to prove the effectiveness of cannabinoids in treating MS in humans, but there are reasons for hope, the researchers say. In many countries, CBD and THC are already prescribed for the treatment of MS symptoms, including pain and muscle stiffness.
“When used wisely, cannabis has huge potential,” says Kozela, who previously studied opiates like morphine, derived from the poppy plant. “We’re just beginning to understand how it works.”
Image via Samuel Binette