Scientific research into the effects of marijuana on Alzheimer’s disease has been going on for several years. One of the first studies was published in 2006. Scientists at the Scripps Institute discovered that THC had an inhibitory effect on the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, proteins that build up between neurons in the brain.

Another early study, appearing in the August 2009 edition of Neurology of Aging, concluded that stimulation of cannabinoid receptors may provide clinical benefits in age-related diseases that are associated with brain inflammation, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Since that time, further research has indicated that THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, may help delay or slow the progression of the disease. However, it has not been shown to reverse Alzheimer’s or cure the disease – until now.

Recently, scientists at the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy have come up with a THC-based formulation that may help reverse Alzheimer’s. The formulation is called Hyalolex, which is derived from a proprietary product, ICG-AD1. This product is currently under development by India Globalisation Capital, a pharmaceutical company based in Maryland. In pre-clinical trials, laboratory mice with Alzheimer’s who were treated with ICG-AD1 experienced reversal of memory loss and restoration of their cognitive abilities – in many cases up to 50%.

The current research builds on earlier studies that have found evidence for the efficacy of cannabinoid-based treatments for patients with neurodegenerative diseases. In 2016, scientists at the Salk Institute were the first to demonstrate the efficacy of cannabinoids in reducing brain inflammation and preventing the accumulation of amyloid beta.

They found that when THC enters the bloodstream (typically by way of the lungs), it attaches itself to receptors with an affinity for cannabinoids, known as CB 1 and 2. While these receptors are found in cells throughout the body, they are heavily concentrated in the region of the brain associated with memory, cognition, and coordination.

CB 1 and 2 receptors most frequently bind to lipid (fatty acid) molecules that are produced by the body when physically active, promoting intercellular communications in the brain. While this can have negative temporary effects on short-term memory and coordination, it also has the effect of preventing the formation of amyloid beta plaques in older brains – thus eliminating the inflammatory response by neurons.

With falling birth rates and an aging population, dealing with Alzheimer’s disease currently costs the U.S. economy nearly $240 billion annually – a figure that is expected to triple over the next three decades. This highlights the dramatic need for effective preventive treatments and, in cases where the disease has already taken hold, a cure.

Eventually, IGC will seek FDA approval for Hyalolex as a prescription medication. However, this will require formal clinical trials involving human subjects. FDA approval, subject to the outcome of the clinical trials, could be months or years away. In the meantime, IGC is working on distributing Hyalolex as a supplement through licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington DC, California, and Maryland, expanding into additional states by the end of the year.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.