Cannabinol (CBN), a relatively unexplored compound naturally found in cannabis, could help protect brain cells from aging and even potentially treat Alzheimer's or related diseases, researchers report.
In a new study recently published in the Free Radical Biology and Medicine journal, researchers from the Salk Institute in California explored the effects of CBN on oxytosis, a natural process that researchers believe may cause Alzheimer's disease. This process, which can be caused by the gradual loss of an essential antioxidant called glutathione, can damage and destroy nerve cells as the brain ages.
In the lab, researchers discovered that CBN protected isolated nerve cells from a chemical agent that simulates the damage caused by oxytosis. Further investigation revealed that CBN achieved these effects by protecting mitochondria, microscopic organelles that provide energy for cells. Previous studies have discovered that mitochondria in nerve cells taken from Alzheimer's patients curl up like donuts and cease functioning. The present study found that CBN stopped mitochondria from curling up and kept them in perfect working order.
“We’ve found that cannabinol protects neurons from oxidative stress and cell death, two of the major contributors to Alzheimer’s,” said lead author Pamela Maher, head of Salk’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, in a statement. “This discovery could one day lead to the development of new therapeutics for treating this disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease.”
Although the researchers were mainly focusing on nerve cells, the present study suggests that CBN could have a much wider range of health benefits. “Mitochondrial dysfunction is implicated in changes in various tissues, not just in the brain and aging, so the fact that this compound is able to maintain mitochondrial function suggests it could have more benefits beyond the context of Alzheimer’s disease,” Maher explained.
The study also reports that CBN does not activate cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which confirms that this cannabis compound does not produce psychoactive effects. And since CBN can be extracted from federally-legal hemp plants, researchers are free to study it without facing the extreme restrictions that the federal government imposes on THC research.
“CBN is not a controlled substance like THC, the psychotropic compound in cannabis, and evidence has shown that CBN is safe in animals and humans,” said first author Zhibin Liang, postdoctoral fellow in the Maher lab, in a press release. “And because CBN works independently of cannabinoid receptors, CBN could also work in a wide variety of cells with ample therapeutic potential.”
The Salk Institute is conducting additional research to discover if CBN could eventually be developed into a treatment for Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, or similar disorders. Several prior studies have found that THC and CBD can also help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's, though, which suggests that a full-spectrum cannabis medicine could also potentially be a viable treatment.