Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the substantia nigra, a section of the brain where dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is made. Neurotransmitters carry messages throughout your body via electrical and chemical signals; it’s through these signals that your brains receives the instructions to carry out everyday activities.
Dopamine regulates mood, behavior, sleep and cognition. In Parkinson’s disease, the brain cells that make dopamine progressively stop working, and as these cells die, protein bundles build up inside of them, causing inflammation and further compounding the disease. Thus, it’s no surprise that Parkinson’s patients experience hardship in these key life mechanisms; hardships that can diminish their quality of life.
To find a cure—or at least slow the disease’s progression, researchers are taking a closer look at cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant.
Small studies have found that CBD, which has little to no psychoactivity, can help psychosis and improve sleep quality in Parkinson’s disease patients. As well, anecdotal evidence indicates CBD may provide far-reaching symptom relief.
It’s not surprising that many patients report that CBD alleviates their symptoms: Among those in the medical marijuana community, CBD is known to help ease anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle rigidity and pain—all of which are associated with Parkinson’s disease or are side effects of medications involved in a traditional treatment regimen for the disease.
A small double-blind exploratory trial consisting of 21 Parkinson’s disease patients found that participants who took 300 mg of CBD a day had higher quality of life scores, as opposed to those taking the placebo dose. While these results were vague and the study group small, the study nevertheless indicates that CBD could be beneficial, and should serve as encouragement for future studies.
Some folks with Parkinson’s have already caught on to CBD’s benefits. Jan Lavelle is a wellness consultant who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease at age 44; she takes a CBD tincture three times a day.
“When people see me, and they find out that I've had Parkinson’s for eight years, they always say it doesn't seem like it,” she says.
Jan credits her CBD regimen in helping with her movement, relaxing her muscles and easing pain. Jan takes CBD like you would a supplement—half a dropperful of an 8:1 CBD to THC tincture, under the tongue, three times a day.
“It took me probably a month or so just to get it in my system. I didn't feel it right away,” she says. She also notes that CBD is just one part of her strategy for managing her disease: Jan follows a healthy diet and exercises daily.
Parkinson’s disease has no cure, and existing therapies only relieve symptoms or supply the body with dopamine; none address the destruction of dopamine-producing brain cells, which is the root cause of the disorder. Researchers are looking at CBD’s anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties in hopes of alleviating symptoms and perhaps even slowing, stopping and reversing disease progression.
“The most promising aspect of cannabis to help Parkinson's patients, as well as any other neurodegenerative disease, lies in the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties, which impart nerve protection and possible reduction of amyloid buildup in brain cells,” says Dr. Perry Solomon, HelloMD’s chief medical officer.
Amyloid is a protein that’s normally found throughout the body, but in Alzheimer’s disease it divides improperly, forming plaque in the brain that interferes with cerebral function. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s share common characteristics like the buildup of proteins in the brain, and it’s thought that some drugs that treat Alzheimer’s could also help Parkinson’s patients.
Dr. Solomon points to lab research in mice that used a combination of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD to reduce amyloid buildup, resulting in improved memory.
Research also suggests that CBD can help with reducing inflammation caused by microglial cells. Microglial cells in the brain “clean up” debris in neurodegenerative disorders, but there’s a caveat: The cleaning actions of microglia can be detrimental to surrounding cells. In patients with Parkinson’s disease, activated microglia are often found near dying, dopamine-producing cells.
Researchers think that controlling this microglial action could have neuroprotective benefits. A study in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease suggests that CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties weaken the actions of these microglial cells.
And lastly, studies in rats have also shown that CBD is neuroprotective. According to a study published in 2007, CBD protected brain cells that projected into the substantia nigra—the part of the brain that’s affected in Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases.
While these preclinical studies show much promise in developing effective treatments for Parkinson’s disease, much more work needs to be conducted—especially trials that have large sample sizes and clear objectives. Until then, Parkinson’s patients like Jan Lavelle will continue to use CBD and other cannabis constituents to manage the symptoms of their disease.
Photo credit: Marina Durán