One of the more controversial medical cannabis applications is its use in treating traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
However, studies on TBI have shown that the endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in the brain’s ability to repair damage.
This system, which spans the entire body and plays an important role in maintaining our day-to-day health, is designed to maintain homeostasis between a stable internal environment and an unstable external environment.
As a result, cannabinoids are essential to maintaining this homeostasis.
Traumatic Brain Injuries and Cannabis Use
Traumatic brain injuries usually result from a single, harsh blow to the head. They can happen in a car crash or other form of critical event.
Besides the initial injury, TBI can lead to inflammation in the brain, damage to blood vessels, nervous system damage, and interference with processing sensory data.
For minor TBIs, many patients have no other solution than over-the-counter pain killers. For more serious cases, additional oxygen may be required to overcome imbalances in the blood.
However, studies are finding that cannabis, with its ability to treat multiple symptoms, is proving to be an extremely effective treatment for patients suffering from TBI.
Cannabis has already demonstrated its usefulness as an anti-inflammatory. One of hardest aspects of TBI to overcome is brain swelling due to fluid and pressure buildup. Often, brain injuries this severe require surgery to relieve the pressure.
However, the introduction of cannabinoids, specifically THC and CBD, into the brain has been shown to drastically reduce swelling and allow for normal blood flow.
When CB1 and CB2 receptors are activated, they stimulate the release of minocycline, which reduces neural swelling and helps to mitigate the damage caused by the injury. These results have been confirmed on studies on both mice and pigs.
One of the first scientists to study the effects of cannabis on TBI was none other than Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who is largely credited for being the first person to isolate THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids as far back as the 1960s.
Mechoulam first published his research on TBI in 2007 in a paper called Endocannabinoids and Traumatic Brain Injury. The study found mice that suffered from a serious brain injury had higher levels of an endocannabinoid known as 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-Ag). This endocannabinoid naturally occurs in the body and is mainly found in the central nervous system.
What Mechoulam and his team discovered was 2-Ag is a natural defense against brain swelling as it is anti-inflammatory by nature. The problem is that the body does not produce enough of it to be effective in accelerating healing.
The study concluded that the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids work as a neuroprotectant when the brain is exposed to trauma, and that the full benefit of the endocannabinoid system as it pertains to its regenerative and anti-inflammatory properties can be achieved by supplementing cannabinoids in TBI patients.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Cannabis Use
Unlike TBI, the neurological effects of CTE are brought about over time instead of from one traumatic event. It was first discovered in football players and other professional athletes exposed to repeated head trauma. Brain tissue exposed to numerous impacts over time eventually dies and leaves behind a protein called tau.
The buildup of this protein affects the brain very much like the plaque buildup found in Alzheimer’s patients. If untreated, it leads to memory issues, cognitive dysfunction, and, in extreme cases, dementia.
With CTE, it is believed that CBD provides the brain with relief. Cannabidiol is a heavy anti-inflammatory and, as previously mentioned, acts as a strong neuroprotectant.
It works to slow the release and buildup of these excess tau proteins, thus slowing the advancement of neurological decay.
This is the same mechanism by which cannabis positively affects patients suffering from the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, which is also caused by excess protein buildup.
Only recently have doctors come to understand what happens to the brain during a traumatic injury or after years of exposure to lesser traumatic events.
Simultaneously, cannabis scientists have uncovered an encyclopedia of information about the benefits that cannabinoids like THC and CBD have on the brain.
The evidence points in only one direction: that there is an inescapable relationship between cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and the brain’s ability to heal itself.