This Is How Cannabis Can Help Traumatic Brain Injury

Health Anna Wilcox 7/8/2019
canaabis in mind
Learn how cannabis can protect the brain during and after head injuries.

Did you know that traumatic brain injury (TBI) plays a role in 30% of all injury deaths?

Already, biopharmaceutical companies are exploring the future of cannabis-based medicines for traumatic brain injury.

Whether if it's an athletic event or a car accident, TBI occurs after a heavy assault to the head.

Types of traumatic brain injury range from the standard concussion to more severe lacerations, and come with a variety of complex symptoms.

Headaches, mood swings, seizures, loss of motor control, speech difficulties, and memory loss are all associated with traumatic brain injury.

Unfortunately, while modern medicine has drastically improved the quality of life for TBI patients, many find themselves with a medicine cabinet filled with various drugs that come with severe side effects, drugs including mood stabilizers, antidepressants, opioid pain medications, and anti-seizure medications.

With an improved yet still grim prognosis, scientists are turning their attention to a new, natural remedy that may drastically improve the lives of those haunted by traumatic brain injury.

That remedy? Cannabis.

Many may find it surprising that chemical compounds found naturally in the cannabis plant may offer a potent treatment solution to traumatic brain injury.

While legal barriers to research make the plant difficult to study, animal research on cannabis and TBI has produced some astounding findings.

In humans, testing positive for THC while sustaining a TBI was associated with decreased mortality, from 11.5 percent down to just 2.4%.

But, could this simple herb provide new insight into treatment and recovery from TBI?

Here’s the scoop on how cannabis can help with traumatic brain injury:

1. Symptom management

effects of medical cannabis
TBI includes a wide range of symptoms, ranging from cognitive deficits to anxiety and insomnia.

From a symptom management perspective, there are several ways that cannabis may help with traumatic brain injury.

Cannabis-based medicines have proved to drastically reduce some types of seizures, and compounds like non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) also have demonstrated potent antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects in preclinical experiments.

The cannabis plant is also being considered as a safe and effective alternative to opioid painkillers, which are associated with high overdose rates and come with a variety of difficult side effects, including constipation and low sex drive.

In fact, a 2017 survey of 271 medical cannabis patients found that 63 percent of participants preferred cannabis over prescription medications for the management of pain, depression, and anxiety.

2. Protection against traumatic injury

words related with cannabis
You are 80% more likely to survive a head injury if you already have THC in your system.

While endocannabinoids are found throughout the body, they are particularly abundant in the brain. Endocannabinoids are like the body’s own cannabis.

They are molecules that the body produces naturally, and cells in the nervous and immune systems use them to communicate.

Research over the past two decades has shown that endocannabinoids are released as a protection mechanism from stress, including after traumatic brain injury.

Multiple preclinical studies have shown that endocannabinoids have neuroprotective properties, helping the brain and nervous system repair after injury.

Unfortunately, there are notable barriers to scientific research using cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant. So, much of the research on cannabinoids has been completed in animal models using synthetic compounds.

Still, the available animal research is promising. This includes research that suggests that boosting levels of endocannabinoids after traumatic brain injury significantly improves recovery outcomes.

One primary component in the cannabis plant, cannabidiol (CBD), works by increasing levels of the body’s own endocannabinoids. Meanwhile, THC, the compound responsible for the classic cannabis “high” works by taking the place of natural endocannabinoids in the body.

3. Reduced traumatic brain inflammation

pain in brain
Preclinical research shows cannabis can reduce brain inflammation.

At this point in research, it’s well known that cannabis has an effect on the human body because of its ability to engage with the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system is the largest neurotransmitter network in the human body, helping the human body respond to stress-related signals from the environment.

At this point, it is well established in preclinical research that endocannabinoids decrease inflammation in the brain after injury.

Likewise, plant-based cannabinoids like THC and CBD are both thought to express neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties.

While legal barriers to cannabinoid research have prevented scientists from performing substantial investigations on just how effective the cannabis plant is when it comes to reducing post-traumatic brain inflammation, research has found that CBD treatment immediately after a loss of oxygen can reduce brain damage.

In fact, a 2011 study published in Pediatric Research discovered that CBD treatment given to newborn pigs after injury effectively reduced seizures, brain edema, injury to the nervous system, and improved overall motor skills and behavior within just 72 hours after the initial injury.

4. Growth of new brain cells

man brain looks like tree
Studies have found that cannabis promotes the growth of new cells in the brain.

Anxiety and depression are common ailments associated with traumatic brain injury. In fact, about half of all people with TBI experience depression in the year following their injury.

While cannabis is known to improve mood and inspire feelings of euphoria, preclinical research has found that cannabis compounds may have a more profound effect on recovering mood after injury.

In a 2005 experiment, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan treated rodents with a synthetic form of THC, the primary psychoactive in the cannabis plant.

When given the cannabinoid on a regular basis, the study found that the compound seemed to kick-start the growth of new brain cells in a brain region known as the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is commonly affected by those with chronic anxiety and depression. It’s also the portion of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and the autonomic nervous system, which lends a hand to stress response and basic bodily functions.

Study author Xia Zang, an associate professor at the university, explained:

“Most ‘drugs of abuse’ suppress neurogenesis. Only marijuana promotes neurogenesis.”

While the synthetic cannabis compound used in this study was significantly stronger than THC, additional preclinical research confirms that cannabis compounds promote neurogenesis.

This may be particularly useful for patients with traumatic brain injury, who not only frequently suffer from mental health and mood ailments, but also face the daunting challenge of healing an injured brain.

5. Bone healing

doctors discussion on brain xray
CBD can help broken bones to heal faster and stronger.

One of the lesser discussed impacts of traumatic brain injury is the effect that trauma has on the skull. Fascinatingly, cannabis-based medicines may be useful for bone healing as well.

After injury to the head, researchers have discovered that endocannabinoids are responsible for triggering bone formation. To discover this mechanism, scientists looked at mice without cannabinoid receptors, which are the landing sites for molecules like THC.

When cannabinoid receptors were blocked, mice with TBI failed to generate new bone growth within 24 hours after injury.

This study was published back in 2005 in the journal Injury.

Interestingly, rodent research on fractures suggests that CBD treatment after injury caused bones to heal faster and stronger.  

These findings provide even more evidence that cannabis may be a useful healing tool after any traumatic injury, not just TBI.

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