Of Mice And Marijuana

Traditionally, in some cultures the elderly smoke cannabis. This is reported to help an elder convey knowledge of the tribe’s culture. It turns out that this is not such a bad idea today.

A research group led by Andreas Zimmer of the University of Bonn in Germany, studied the mammalian endocannabinoid system (the indiginous cannabis system in all mammals.) This is involved in stabilizing the stress responses of our body. THC’s effect on this system generally causes us to calm down.

Studies in mice

Scientists found that mice grow older sooner–with genetic mutations that disrupt the functioning of the endocannabinoid system–than mice that have no mutations. The cognition of mice with genetic mutations also deteriorated at a higher rate, as a result, Zimmer wondered if stimulation of the endocannabinoid system would have an opposite effect.

The young mice from the control group that did not receive THC performed much better than the middle and elderly control group mice. But the middle and older mice who received THC performed as well as the young mice, without THC.

Further studies showed that THC stimulates the number of brain cell connections in the hippocampus, a brain area involved with memory. “It’s a striking result,” says Zimmer.

Zimmer thinks his results show that too much or too little stimulation of the endocannabinoid system can be harmful. This system is most active in young mice and humans, so the additional stimulation of THC can overload it. Unlike older mice, the activity of the endocannabinoid system is decreasing, so a little bit of THC could reduce the system to an optmum level.

Studies in people

The results from the research are not so surprising, according to pharmacologist David Nutt of Imperial College London, who specializes in neuropsychology. Animal studies have shown that the cannabinoids produced in the body have beneficial effects on the brain. Nutt and his colleagues have also found that the use of THC can protect alcoholics from brain damage, caused by alcohol.

The Zimmer research team is now planning to conduct studies in humans to investigate whether older people can benefit from a small dose of THC.

Even if the researchers find the same results in humans as in mice, it’s unlikely that doctors will prescribe joints. “The dosage is important,” says Zimmer. ‘Smoking of marijuana is very different.’