Phytocannabinoids and Cannabis-Based Products as Alternative Pharmacotherapy in Neurodegenerative Diseases: From Hypothesis to Clinical Practice

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“Historically, Cannabis is one of the first plants to be domesticated and used in medicine, though only in the last years the amount of Cannabis-based products or medicines has increased worldwide.

Previous preclinical studies and few published clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy and safety of Cannabis-based medicines in humans. Indeed, Cannabis-related medicines are used to treat multiple pathological conditions, including neurodegenerative disorders.

In clinical practice, Cannabis products have already been introduced to treatment regimens of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis’s patients, and the mechanisms of action behind the reported improvement in the clinical outcome and disease progression are associated with their anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressive, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties, due to the modulation of the endocannabinoid system.

In this review, we describe the role played by the endocannabinoid system in the physiopathology of Alzheimer, Parkinson, and Multiple Sclerosis, mainly at the neuroimmunological level. We also discuss the evidence for the correlation between phytocannabinoids and their therapeutic effects in these disorders, thus describing the main clinical studies carried out so far on the therapeutic performance of Cannabis-based medicines.”

“Based on scientific evidence, the use of Cannabis-based products or Cannabis-based medicine (CBM) has been growing among patients diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases. Most reports of clinical trials also describe significant improvement in disease-related primary and/or secondary symptoms, besides general improvement in life quality.”

Inhibitory Effects of Cannabinoids on Acetylcholinesterase and Butyrylcholinesterase Enzyme Activities

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Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) are two cholinergic enzymes catalyzing the reaction of cleaving acetylcholine into acetate and choline at the neuromuscular junction. Abnormal hyperactivity of AChE and BChE can lead to cholinergic deficiency, which is associated with several neurological disorders including cognitive decline and memory impairments.

Preclinical studies support that some cannabinoids including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may exert pharmacological effects on the cholinergic system, but it remains unclear whether cannabinoids can inhibit AChE and BChE activities.

Herein, we aimed to evaluate the inhibitory effects of a panel of cannabinoids including CBD, Δ8-THC, cannabigerol (CBG), cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), cannabicitran (CBT), cannabidivarin (CBDV), cannabichromene (CBC), and cannabinol (CBN) on AChE and BChE activities.

Results: Cannabinoids including CBD, Δ8-THC, CBG, CBGA, CBT, CBDV, CBC, and CBN (at 200 µM) inhibited the activities of AChE and BChE by 70.8, 83.7, 92.9, 76.7, 66.0, 79.3, 13.7, and 30.5%, and by 86.8, 80.8, 93.2, 87.1, 77.0, 78.5, 27.9, and 22.0%, respectively. The inhibitory effects of these cannabinoids (with IC50 values ranging from 85.2 to >200 µM for AChE and 107.1 to >200 µM for BChE) were less potent as compared to the positive control galantamine (IC50 1.21 and 6.86 µM for AChE and BChE, respectively). In addition, CBD, as a representative cannabinoid, displayed a competitive type of inhibition on both AChE and BChE. Data from the molecular docking studies suggested that cannabinoids interacted with several amino acid residues on the enzyme proteins, which supported their overall inhibitory effects on AChE and BChE.

Conclusion: Cannabinoids showed moderate inhibitory effects on the activities of AChE and BChE enzymes, which may contribute to their modulatory effects on the cholinergic system. Further studies using cell-based and in vivo models are warranted to evaluate whether cannabinoids’ neuroprotective effects are associated with their anti-cholinesterase activities.”

“Previously published work from our group has shown that medicinal plants and their derived natural products show neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties.

Notably, cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa (C. sativa) have been increasingly evaluated in studies to treat chronic pain, inflammation, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and neurological diseases, specifically AD.

Furthermore, a study implicated that phytochemicals of C. sativa, including several cannabinoids, are inhibitors of AChE,

In summary, several cannabinoids exhibited moderate inhibitory effects against the activities of cholinesterases including AChE and BChE.”

“Naturally Occurring Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors and Their Potential Use for Alzheimer’s Disease Therapy”

Cannabinoid CB 2 Receptors Modulate Microglia Function and Amyloid Dynamics in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease

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“The distribution and roles of the cannabinoid CB2 receptor in the CNS are still a matter of debate. Recent data suggest that, in addition to its presence in microglial cells, the CB2 receptor may be also expressed at low levels, yet biologically relevant, in other cell types such as neurons. It is accepted that the expression of CB2 receptors in the CNS is low under physiological conditions and is significantly elevated in chronic neuroinflammatory states associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. By using a novel mouse model (CB2 EGFP/f/f), we studied the distribution of cannabinoid CB2 receptors in the 5xFAD mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease (by generating 5xFAD/CB2 EGFP/f/f mice) and explored the roles of CB2 receptors in microglial function. We used a novel selective and brain penetrant CB2 receptor agonist (RO6866945) as well as mice lacking the CB2 receptor (5xFAD/CB2 -/-) for these studies. We found that CB2 receptors are expressed in dystrophic neurite-associated microglia and that their modulation modifies the number and activity of microglial cells as well as the metabolism of the insoluble form of the amyloid peptide. These results support microglial CB2 receptors as potential targets for the development of amyloid-modulating therapies.”

“These data thus suggest a role for microglial cannabinoid CB2 receptors in the initiation, maintenance and removal of plaques and open new venues for the microglia-based therapeutic approaches in AD.”

Efficacy of Δ9 -Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Alone or in Combination With a 1:1 Ratio of Cannabidiol (CBD) in Reversing the Spatial Learning Deficits in Old Mice

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“Decline in cognitive performance, an aspect of the normal aging process, is influenced by the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) signaling diminishes with advancing age in specific brain regions that regulate learning and memory and abolishing CB1 receptor signaling accelerates cognitive aging in mice. We recently demonstrated that prolonged exposure to low dose (3 mg/kg/day) Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) improved the cognitive performances in old mice on par with young untreated mice. Here we investigated the potential influence of cannabidiol (CBD) on this THC effect, because preclinical and clinical studies indicate that the combination of THC and CBD often exhibits an enhanced therapeutic effect compared to THC alone. We first tested the effectiveness of a lower dose (1 mg/kg/day) THC, and then the efficacy of the combination of THC and CBD in 1:1 ratio, same as in the clinically approved medicine Sativex®. Our findings reveal that a 1 mg/kg/day THC dose still effectively improved spatial learning in aged mice. However, a 1:1 combination of THC and CBD failed to do so. The presence of CBD induced temporal changes in THC metabolism ensuing in a transient elevation of blood THC levels. However, as CBD metabolizes, the inhibitory effect on THC metabolism was alleviated, causing a rapid clearance of THC. Thus, the beneficial effects of THC seemed to wane off more swiftly in the presence of CBD, due to these metabolic effects. The findings indicate that THC-treatment alone is more efficient to improve spatial learning in aged mice than the 1:1 combination of THC and CBD.”

“In conclusion, our observations indicate that 1 mg/kg/day THC dose is still effective in improving the spatial learning in aged mice. With regard to the efficacy, THC-alone has proved to be more efficient in improving spatial learning in aged mice than its 1:1 combination with CBD. However, the possibility of THC/CBD being efficient in other ratios or at the earliest time-points, like immediately after the treatment cease, cannot be negated. Possibly, reducing the dose of CBD may improve the efficacy of the THC/CBD combination.”

Cannabidiol Inhibits Tau Aggregation In Vitro


“A hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the accumulation of tau protein in the brain. Compelling evidence indicates that the presence of tau aggregates causes irreversible neuronal destruction, eventually leading to synaptic loss. So far, the inhibition of tau aggregation has been recognized as one of the most effective therapeutic strategies. Cannabidiol (CBD), a major component found in Cannabis sativa L., has antioxidant activities as well as numerous neuroprotective features. Therefore, we hypothesize that CBD may serve as a potent substance to hamper tau aggregation in AD. In this study, we aim to investigate the CBD effect on the aggregation of recombinant human tau protein 1N/4R isoform using biochemical methods in vitro and in silico. Using Thioflavin T (ThT) assay, circular dichroism (CD), and atomic force microscopy (AFM), we demonstrated that CBD can suppress tau fibrils formation. Moreover, by quenching assay, docking, and job’s plot, we further demonstrated that one molecule of CBD interacts with one molecule of tau protein through a spontaneous binding. Experiments performed by quenching assay, docking, and Thioflavin T assay further established that the main forces are hydrogen Van der Waals and some non-negligible hydrophobic forces, affecting the lag phase of tau protein kinetics. Taken together, this study provides new insights about a natural substance, CBD, for tau therapy which may offer new hope for the treatment of AD.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol-Rich Extracts From Cannabis Sativa L. Improve Glucose Consumption and Modulate Metabolic Complications Linked to Neurodegenerative Diseases in Isolated Rat Brains

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“Reduced brain glucose consumption arising from impaired glucose uptake and utilization has been linked to the pathogenesis and complications of neurodegenerative diseases. The ability of Cannabis sativa L. tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-rich extracts to stimulate brain glucose uptake and utilization as well as its modulatory effect on gluconeogenesis, antioxidative, purinergic and cholinergic activities were investigated in isolated rats’ brains. C. sativa leaves were sequentially extracted to yield the hexane and dichloromethane extracts. The extracts were incubated at 37°C with freshly harvested brains in the presence of glucose for 2 h. The control consisted of incubation without the extracts, while brains without the extracts and glucose served as the normal control. Metformin was used as the standard drug. C. sativa extracts caused a significant (p < 0.05) increase in brain glucose uptake, with concomitant elevation of glutathione level, superoxide dismutase, catalase, and ecto-nucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase activities compared to the controls. Incubation with C. sativa extracts also led to depletion in malondialdehyde and nitric oxide levels, acetylcholinesterase, butyrylcholinesterase, glucose 6-phosphatase and fructose-1,6-biphosphatase activities. GC-MS analysis of the extracts revealed the presence of THC. In silico analysis predicted THC to be permeable across the blood-brain-barrier. THC was also predicted to have an oral LD50 and toxicity class values of 482 mg/kg and 4 respectively. These results indicate that C. sativa improves glucose consumption with concomitant suppression of oxidative stress and cholinergic dysfunction, and modulation of purinergic and gluconeogenic activities in brain tissues.”

“As portrayed by these results, C. sativa improves glucose consumption with concomitant suppression of oxidative stress and cholinergic dysfunction, and modulation of purinergic and gluconeogenic activities in brain tissues. Further studies are recommended to decipher the molecular mechanisms that may be involved in these neuroprotective activities in in vivo studies.”

Neuroprotection by Cannabinoids in Neurodegenerative Diseases

“The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants for mental and motor dysfuction in neurodegenerative diseases. The neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids suggest their therapeutic use for limiting neurological damage. The cannabinoids treatments should not only aim to alleviate specific symptoms but also attempt to delay/arrest disease progression and to repair the damaged structures. The author conducted a review of studies published between 1974 and 2011. The search was performed using the following PubMed search terms: “Cannabinoids” and “Neurodegenerative Diseases” and 287 papers were detected. The articles were examined and the overlapping or insufficiently clear works were excluded. Finally we chose 117 articles regarding the latest international guidelines, the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative diseases and the various therapeutic choices. The studies reported in the present review support the view that the cannabinoid signalling system is a key modulatory element in the activity of the basal ganglia. This idea is supported by different anatomical, electrophysiological, pharmacological and biochemical data. Furthermore, these studies indicate that the cannabinoid system is impaired in different neurological disorders that directly or indirectly affect the basal ganglia, which supports the idea of developing novel pharmacotherapies with compounds that selectively target specific elements of the cannabinoid system.”

Recent Advances in the Potential of Cannabinoids for Neuroprotection in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s Diseases

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“Three prevalent neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s are in need of symptomatic relief of slowing disease progression or both. This chapter focuses on the potential of cannabinoids to afford neuroprotection, i.e. avoid or retard neuronal death. The neuroprotective potential of cannabinoids is known from the work in animal models and is mediated by the two cannabinoid receptors (CB1/CB2) and eventually, by their heteromers, GPR55, orphan receptors (GPR3/GPR6/GPR12/GPR18), or PPARγ. Now, there is the time to translate the findings into patients. The chapter takes primarily into account advances since 2016 and addresses the issue of proving neuroprotection in humans. One recent discovery is the existence of activated microglia with neuroprotective phenotype; cannabinoids are good candidates to skew phenotype, especially via glial CB2 receptors (CB2R), whose targeting has, a priori, less side effects those targeting the CBs1 receptor (CB1R), which are expressed in both neurons and glia. The fact that a cannabis extract (SativexTM) is approved for human therapy, such that cannabis use will likely be legalized in many countries and different possibilities that cannabinoid pharmacology suggests a successful route of cannabinoids (natural or synthetic) all the way to be approved and used in the treatment of neurodegeneration.”

Analogues of cannabinoids as multitarget drugs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease

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“Given that neuronal degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is caused by the combination of multiple neurotoxic insults, current directions in the research of novel therapies to treat this disease attempts to design multitarget strategies that could be more effective than the simply use of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors; currently, the most used therapy for AD. One option, explored recently, is the synthesis of new analogues of cannabinoids that could competitively inhibit the acetylcholinesterase (AChE) enzyme and showing the classic neuroprotective profile of cannabinoid compounds. In this work, molecular docking has been used to design some cannabinoid analogues with such multitarget properties, based on the similarities of donepezil and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The analogues synthesized, compounds 1 and 2, demonstrated to have two interesting characteristics in different in vitro assays: competitive inhibition of AChE and competitive antagonism at the CB1/CB2 receptors. They are highly lipophilic, highlighting that they could easily reach the CNS, and apparently presented a low toxicity. These results open the door to the synthesis of new compounds for a more effective treatment of AD.”

The Neuroprotective Properties, Functions, and Roles of Cannabis sativa in Selected Diseases Related to the Nervous System

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“Background: Cannabis and its extracts are now being explored due to their huge health benefits. Although, the effect they elicit, whether on humans or rodents, may vary based on the age of the animal/subject and or the time in which the extract is administered. However, several debates exist concerning the various medical applications of these compounds. Nonetheless, their applicability as therapeutics should not be clouded based on their perceived negative biological actions.

Methods: Articles from reliable databases such as Science Direct, PubMed, Google Scholar, Scopus, and Ovid were searched. Specific search methods were employed using multiple keywords: ”Medicinal Cannabis; endocannabinoid system; cannabinoids receptors; cannabinoids and cognition; brain disorders; neurodegenerative diseases”. For the inclusion/exclusion criteria, only relevant articles related to medicinal Cannabis and its various compounds were considered.

Results: The current review highlights the role, effects, and involvement of Cannabis, cannabinoids, and endocannabinoids in preventing selected neurodegenerative diseases and possible amelioration of cognitive impairments. Furthermore, it also focuses on Cannabis utilization in many disease conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease among others.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the usage of Cannabis should be further explored as accumulating evidence suggests that it could be effective and somewhat safe, especially when adhered to the recommended dosage. Furthermore, in-depth studies should be conducted in order to unravel the specific mechanism underpinning the involvement of cannabinoids at the cellular level and their therapeutic applications.”