Marijuana for MS Debate Heats Up with New Find
Use of marijuana for multiple sclerosis (MS) has been a hotly followed trail for several years, especially in Israel, which is home of the discovery of the mind-altering chemical in the plant, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Now a new study shows that some components of marijuana have once again been found to be beneficial.
The MS and marijuana story
MS is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord, damaging and destroying the myelin sheath (protective covering) on nerve cells. The result is a variety of symptoms (e.g., vision problems, muscle spasms and tremors, pain, fatigue, dizziness, memory and concentration difficulties) that can come and go for years, then become permanent.
Although the cause of MS is unknown and as of yet there is no cure, a number of recent discoveries have shown some promise in relieving symptoms and possibly slowing disease progression. The latest comes from Tel Aviv University, where a research team found that compounds in marijuana can relieve symptoms in mice with MS-like disease by preventing inflammation of the nervous system.
In addition to THC, the researchers have also studied another marijuana component called cannabidiol (CBD), which has anti-inflammatory abilities but not the mind-altering effects. This latest study involved use of both CBD and THC to determine their impact on inflammation in MS.
Application of CBD or THC to isolated immune cells from mice with MS-like disease showed that the compounds led to the production of fewer inflammatory molecules in the cells. In particular, the marijuana chemicals reduced interleukin 17 (IL-17), which is especially damaging to myelin and nerve cells.
Previous studies of MS and marijuana
In a meta-analysis of six trials from 2009, the reviewers reported that a combination of THC and CBD demonstrated therapeutic benefit in MS patients. At that time, although the patients reported a significant decline in muscle spasms after using marijuana components, there were no significant changes in objective measures.
In a subsequent study from Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Plymouth, experts evaluated nearly 500 patients for their response to either placebo or THC capsules for three years. The study showed that MS progressed more slowly than expected among those who received THC.
Another study from the University of Plymouth, called the MUSEC (MUtiple Sclerosis and Extract of Cannabis) trial, explored the use of marijuana extract on muscle stiffness in MS. Results of the double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that MS patients who took THC and CBD capsules for three months had a decline of 29 percent in muscle stiffness (vs 16% in placebo), improvement in muscle spasms (31% vs 13% in placebo), body pain relief (28% vs 19%), and better sleep quality (34% vs 19%).
The bottom line
A series of studies of marijuana for treatment of MS symptoms have demonstrated promising results. The latest study from Tel Aviv University suggests that marijuana components CBD and THC have an ability to interfere with the immune cells’ production of inflammatory molecules and their subsequent damage to the nervous system. Additional studies need to be conducted in humans to verify these findings and better gauge the impact of marijuana on MS patients.
American Friends of Tel Aviv University
Zajicek JP et al. Multiple sclerosis and extract of cannabis: results of the MUSEC trial. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 2012 Nov; 83(11): 1125-32