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Can Marijuana Slow the Process of Neurodegeneration in HIV Patients?

A new study finds that THC found in marijuana could potentially slow the process of neurodegeneration in individuals with HIV.

A new study out of Michigan State University has found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical found in marijuana, could be beneficial for individuals living with HIV in that it can potentially slow the process of neurodegeneration within this population.

Neurodegeneration occurs in about 50% of HIV patients, according to the official university press release. According to Norbert Kaminski, PhD, lead author of the study, director for the Institute for Integrative Toxicology, and professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, this may be because chronic inflammation that occurs in the brain of those who are infected.

“This happens because the immune system is constantly being stimulated to fight off disease,” Dr. Kaminski said in the press release. In healthy individuals, around 5% to 15% of their monocytes express inflammation markers, Dr. Kaminski told our sister publication MD Magazine, whereas, in those with HIV, 40% to 60% of their monocytes express these markers. This can result in a “great variation of cognitive issues” for those with HIV.

HIV infection is known to target the central nervous system in subcortical regions of the brain, which can result in high rates of delirium, depression, opportunistic central nervous system infections, and dementia.

“It can really run the gamut, from being relatively mild, to, in extreme cases, what you observe in an Alzheimer’s patient,” Dr. Kaminski told MD Magazine.

Since 1990, Dr. Kaminski has studied how marijuana impacts the immune system. In fact, according to the press release, he and his colleagues were the first “to identify the proteins that can bind marijuana compounds on the surface of immune cells,” whereas previous to this discovery, the impact of these compounds on the immune system was unknown.

For the current study, Dr. Kaminski and his team collected blood samples from 40 patients with HIV, some used marijuana, others did not. The team then isolated the monocytes from each patient to take a closer look at inflammatory cell levels and the impact of marijuana.

Their findings? The samples of those HIV patients who did not smoke marijuana contained “a very high level” of inflammatory cells compared with those who did smoke marijuana. “In fact, those who used marijuana had levels pretty close to a healthy person not infected with HIV,” Dr. Kaminski said in the press release. The compounds in marijuana acted as anti-inflammatory agents, reducing the number of monocytes within the patients.

“The anti-inflammatory properties were not novel,” Dr. Kaminski told MD Magazine. “What was novel was the rate of decrease of monocytes in these patients.”

Currently, medical marijuana is used to stimulate appetites, alleviate anxiety associated with HIV, or fight adverse effects caused by other therapies, Dr. Kaminski told MD Magazine.

A better understanding of how monocytes interact with marijuana could have potential implications for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or other neurological-related diseases since the same inflammatory cells are involved. Further research regarding this interaction could also potentially be used to inform the development of new therapeutic agents, such as a pill containing compounds derived from marijuana, that would help those living with HIV maintain their mental function.