Israeli researchers have long been on the cutting edge of medical marijuana research. Now a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University have shown that certain compounds found in cannabis can help treat multiple sclerosis-like diseases by preventing inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.
MS is an inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. It can cause a wide range of debilitating motor, physical and mental issues.
“Inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response, but in cases like MS, it gets out of hand,” says co-author Dr. Ewa Kozela, who previously studied opiates like morphine, derived from the poppy plant. “Our study looks at how compounds isolated from marijuana can be used to regulate inflammation to protect the nervous system and its functions.”
Kozela, along with Ana Juknat, Neta Rimmerman and Zvi Vogel of Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases and Sackler Faculty of Medicine, as well as researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science, published their findings in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology.
Israeli scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni first isolated the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC – in 1964. Later, Ruth Gallily, a professor emerita of immunology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studied cannabidiol, or CBD, which, with its fewer psychoactive properties, is thought to be more medically significant than THC. CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety agent.
In a 2011 study, the TAU research team showed that CBD helps treat MS-like symptoms in mice by preventing immune cells in their bodies from transforming and attacking the insulating covers of nerve cells in the spinal cord. After partially paralyzing the mice to induce an MS-like state, the researchers injected them with CBD. The mice regained movement and showed less inflammation in their spinal cords than their untreated counterparts.
In their latest study, the team set out to discover whether the known anti-inflammatory properties of CBD and THC could also be used to treat the inflammation associated with MS, and if so, how.
To do so, they isolated immune cells from paralyzed mice which target and harm the brain and spinal cord, treating the cells with either THC or CBD. In both cases, the cells produced fewer inflammatory molecules, most notably interleukin 17 (IL-17), associated with MS. IL-17 is particularly harmful to nerve cells and their insulating covers.
The researchers concluded that the presence of CBD or THC prevents the immune cells from triggering the production of inflammatory molecules, thereby limiting the molecules’ ability to reach and damage the brain and spinal cord.
While the results of the current study are promising, researchers point out further study is needed to determine the effectiveness of using cannabis to treat MS in humans. Meanwhile, however, both CBD and THC are prescribed in many countries to treat symptoms of MS, such as pain and muscle stiffness.
“When used wisely, cannabis has huge potential,” says Kozela. “We’re just beginning to understand how it works.”