Log In

Enter your username and password below

Marijuana’s Active Ingredient Makes You Smarter

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies recently found that introducing chemical compounds like THC “reduced inflammation and prevented cell death.”

“They don’t call it ‘dope’ because it makes you smarter.”

That’s an old head’s way of reminding younger experimentalists that smoking marijuana is bad for the brain.

At least that’s how they used to say it, back when I was trolling the mean streets of La Jolla, California, as an undergraduate at U.C., San Diego.

Evidently, “dope” now refers to “heroin,” though that may be another matter of the eternal West Coast-East Coast conflict.

What’s certainly clear, however, is that it’s now a subject of scientific inquiry whether the central advice — pot makes you dumb — is even true.

In fact, “dope” may indeed make you smarter.

That’s the core finding of a study conducted by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, published by the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease on June 23, 2016:

Cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol stimulate the removal of intraneuronal Aβ, block the inflammatory response, and are protective. Altogether, these data show that there is a complex and likely autocatalytic inflammatory response within nerve cells caused by the accumulation of intracellular Aβ, and that this early form of proteotoxicity can be blocked by the activation of cannabinoid receptors.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active ingredient in marijuana. It’s the reason people smoke it, vape it, cook it up in pot brownies. It’s what gets you high.

“Aβ,” or amyloid-beta (also beta-amyloid), is a protein closely linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, dope may indeed make you smarter.

Pieces of the protein — which comes from a larger protein found in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells — clump together to form plaques. These plaques eventually build up and cause cell death and tissue loss in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains.

The Salk Institute team found that “the production of amyloid-β initiates an inflammatory response that ultimately leads to neuronal death.”

But they also learned that the brain naturally produces endocannabinoids, which help clear amyloid-beta from neurons.

And — spark it up! — they discovered that introducing chemical compounds like THC “reduced inflammation and prevented cell death.”

As Popular Science notes:

When the results came back, their theory wasn’t only correct, but also hadn’t gone far enough. The addition of THC to the cells had indeed reduced the levels of inflammation and helped the cells stay alive. But what the group didn’t expect was a reduction in the levels of Aβ inside the cells. In essence, THC had protected the cell and gave it the opportunity to heal itself.

The Salk Institute team was working with cell cultures in a laboratory environment. They weren’t treating patients. And that is a long-off event.

But coupled with evidence suggesting that amyloid-beta starts destroying synapses even before it clumps into the plaques that kill cells, we may have a road map for not just the treatment of Alzheimer’s, but for early detection and prevention, as well.

As the Salk Institute researchers framed the problem:

Nerve cell death from the accumulation of aggregated or amyloid-like proteins is a common theme in most age-dependent neurodegenerative diseases. However, there are no drugs that significantly inhibit cell death associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases. This could be because most interest has been in the late manifestations of the disease, not in the initial changes in cell metabolism that ultimately lead to nerve cell death.

Studies of concentration of THC and means of delivery are essential.

But this is yet another strong indication of marijuana’s medical utility. And it’s another beacon of hope for the more than 16 million Americans who will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.

So yeah, dope can make these folks “smarter” in their golden years.

We may have a road map for not just the treatment of Alzheimer’s but early detection and prevention.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 26 states as well as the District of Columbia.

Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota will vote on November 8 on initiatives that would permit access for people with qualifying medical conditions and would establish frameworks for cultivation and distribution.

At the same time, the federal government continues to fight the old fight as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still refuses to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

According to the DEA: based on evaluations conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in consultation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.”

So it’s still a “Schedule I controlled substance” — up there with heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone and peyote.

Neither marijuana nor its active ingredient, THC, is a panacea. But there is a load of scientific evidence suggesting that at the very least, it doesn’t belong on Schedule I.

A survey of 60 peer-reviewed studies involving cannabis and cannabis extracts conducted from 1990–2014 shows some interesting data.

These 60 studies focused on 16 different conditions, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and rheumatoid arthritis, among others.

Forty-one studies, or 68.3%, concluded that marijuana was beneficial in the treatment of the condition in focus. Five, or 8.3%, concluded that marijuana was not useful for the specific condition studied. Fourteen studies revealed mixed results or were not clearly pro or con.

I get why the DEA is stuck in the “Just Say No” era. Its very name implies rigidity. It ain’t the “Drug Evaluation Administration.” Its mission is “enforcement.”

There is some room for progress, however.

Neither marijuana nor its active ingredient, THC, is a panacea. But there is a load of scientific evidence suggesting, at the very least, it doesn’t belong on Schedule I.

The DEA’s August 11, 2016, announcement rejecting two petitions to reschedule marijuana included a statement that it and the FDA would rely on the drug-approval process as the ultimate arbiter of whether a marijuana-based therapy “is safe and effective and has an accepted medical use.”

The DEA also announced a policy change “designed to foster research by expanding the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers.”

So there is a path — however circuitous and choked by bureaucracy it may be — to get patients their medical marijuana, and researchers will now have access to more and different strains of what Willie Nelson might call “God’s flower.”

Humankind has used marijuana for medicinal purposes since at least 2700 B.C., when Chinese Emperor Shennong discovered its healing properties.

As recently as 1850, the United States Pharmacopeia listed marijuana as a legitimate treatment for neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsive disorders, tonsillitis, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, uterine bleeding, and other afflictions.

Something changed around 1933. Here’s the story, according to Johann Hari of The Influence.

Harry Anslinger, who was appointed to run the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, needed something to do after the end of Prohibition.

“Demon weed” became his new cause after a boy in Florida killed his family with an axe.

Anslinger wrote to 30 scientists, soliciting their opinions on cannabis, whether it was dangerous, and whether it should be illegal.

Twenty-nine of these scientists said it wasn’t dangerous and that it shouldn’t be banned. One said it was and that it should. Anslinger stoked a panic. And here we are.

It’s only taken about 100 years, but finally, cooler heads are starting to prevail.

Money Quote

“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

– Carl Sagan

“When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”

– Barack Obama

“Of course I know how to roll a joint.”

– Martha Stewart

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

David Dittman

, Contributing Writer

View More By David Dittman