Cannabis and Aging: Marijuana’s Effects on the Senior Brain

Marijuana's effects on the senior brain

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” – that’s the adage we’ve always grown up with. And it’s not merely a lie perpetuated by the kingpins of our local orchards: apples do provide nutrients conducive to health. But they’re not alone in that talent. While an apple a day may keep the doctor away, a joint a day may repel Father Time. Yep, marijuana allows the senior brain to age slower.

The Science That Backs it

A recent study published in Nature Medicine found that aging mice given low-doses of THC experienced superior brain function: the THC boosted their performance on cognitive tasks. This boost was so drastic that the elderly mice exhibited brain function that matched mice in their prime. Fun fact: mice in their prime are referred to as “the Big Cheese” by their fMice testing cannabis, cannabis for the senior brainriends…maybe.

Andreas Zimmer of the University of Bonn in Germany conducted the study. During the experiment, mice (young, mature, and aged) were given low doses of THC. The mature mice and the aged mice experienced cognitive improvement upon receiving the drug. This improvement, per Zimmer, was “very robust, very profound.”

However, the young mice did not experience the same benefit; rather, the THC they received diminished their cognitive performance. This wasn’t surprising, since science has recently begun to believe cannabis affects the young and the old quite differently. Marijuana isn’t the only drug that does this, of course. Pharmaceuticals are filled with warnings against giving certain drugs to children and even anti-depressants affect young adults (those under the age of 25) much differently. In short, they can up the suicide risk in young people, a risk not increased in someone older.

Will This Translate to People?

While the experiment mentioned above exhibits the neuroprotection of cannabis, scientists are warning not to read too much into it: whether this benefit translates to humans isn’t yet known.

Before they can firmly state that cannabis does indeed help the elderly and the aging brain, more research is needed

Even so, rodent involved research is a mainstay of science and it’s not because we really want to know how to cure mice of cancer or increase lifespan; it’s because we want to do these things in people. Sometimes, the evidence syncs – the mice to man connection holds and if mice experience something from a drug, humans experience it too. Sometimes, the evidence doesn’t sync – most of us remember the “diet soda is carcinogenic” scare of the 1980s where we all ran away from Diet Coke into the arms of regular pop.

Still, this evidence is promising, especially when you consider the reason why the THC worked. Researchers who examined the brains of the mice being treated (I’m just going to pretend that these mice died of natural causes at very advanced ages) found that neurons in the hippocampus (the area of the brain that controls learning and memory) had more synaptic spines. These spines act as points of contact for communication between the neurons; thus, more spines allow the brain to function more synergistically.

But that wasn’t all – the researchers also found that the gene expression pattern in the hippocampi of the THC-treated older mice was different (to a large degree) from the expression pattern in the untreated older mice. The treated mice had expression that looked almost similar to the expression of young mice.

The cannabinoid system we have within our bodies (the endogenous cannabinoid system) declines as we age. When people and animals grow older, the activity in this system goes down. Cannabinoids, like THC, are thought to stimulate this, explaining why it shows benefit to the aged but not to the young (who don’t require stimulation as their cannabinoid system is still working at full capacity).

When you take into consideration that marijuana has always had a harmonizing effect on the body, the above makes sense

Of course, this raises the question as to whether THC and the other cannabinoids of cannabis can act as anti-aging molecules for the brain. Can pot be the elusive fountain of youth we’ve forever sought? It’s certainly making a case for itself.

Zimmer and his colleagues plan to follow through and pursue the extra evidence they need for answers. They have already secured funding from Germany’s government. Now they must receive approval from the regulatory agencies before they can begin testing THC on elderly humans.

What this Means

So, what does this mean, exactly? Does this mean you should take back the vase you purchased your grandma for her birthday and get her a bowl instead? Does this mean your grandpa should ditch his weekly bridge game and join a pot circle instead? Well, sure! But if they want to truly reap the benefits discussed above, it’s important to remember that the THC used was low dose. The researchers admit that they aren’t sure what happens in higher amounts. Simply, there’s so much still to learn.

Senior Brain and Weed

While the jury continues to be out, seniors’ attitudes towards weed have changed. Young people may make up the largest group of weed users, but cannabis is growing among the older crowds. Scientific America reports that a March Study found weed use in people between 50 and 64 has increased by 60 percent; in people over 65, weed use has increased by more than 250 percent.

Naturally, not all of this is the result of folks chasing the possible cognitive benefits. Many seniors, just like people in all age groups, use cannabis as a way to deal with chronic pain, nausea, and things like MS or Parkinson’s disease.

The above experiment demonstrates a possible double advantage. Seniors who are smoking or consuming cannabis for other medical reasons (or for fun!) may be protecting their brains in the process. Who knows, maybe Mary Jane really will kick Father Time’s ass.

Cannabis and Aging: Marijuana’s Effects on the Senior Brain was last modified: by
Jenn Keeler
About Jenn Keeler
Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.