Blog Details

Cannabinoids and Traumatic Brain Injury

We’ve come a long way in our knowledge of cannabis and its effects on the body, but some anti-pot campaigns still cling on to outdated propaganda as though it were legit. Specifically, there are those who still insist that cannabis use causes long term brain damage despite evidence proving otherwise. In fact, modern cannabis research suggests that cannabis may actually repair the brain after traumatic injury and protect it from age-related neurological disorders, as well.

Studies Suggest Cannabis May Protect the Brain from Injury

Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, occurs when trauma – say a solid bump to the head – disrupts normal brain functions. The immediate symptoms of TBI are considered mild if they last 30 minutes or less and often consist of things like localized pain, dizziness, disorientation and confusion. Long-term consequences of a traumatic brain injury, however, can last a lifetime and include things like memory problems, attention deficits, mood swings and frustration. TBI may also lead to premature death or an early onset of neurological disorders like dementia.

Interestingly, the use of cannabis may reduce mortality and help protect the brain from trauma-induced disorders. Pulling data from three years of hospital records, researchers found that those with THC in their systems at the time of trauma were significantly less likely to die from the injury. Other studies have found cannabis to be effective at both treating and helping prevent Alzheimer’s Disease by flushing the brain of toxic build-up and by reducing inflammation that causes much of the damage in the first place.

Repeated brain injury can also have long-term consequences. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is common among many athletes (especially those engaging in high-contact sports like football and hockey), military veterans, or anyone with a history of repeated brain trauma. Symptoms of CTE include aggression, depression, mood swings, paranoia, and impulse control and typically begin in one’s late 20s 30s. As the disease progresses, memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement and eventually dementia usually set in. In some tragic cases, suicide was seemingly the only way out of this degenerative disease.

Symptoms of CTE get progressively worse because brain degeneration happens well after the trauma has ceased. However, cannabinoids have both neuroprotective and neuro-regenerative properties suggesting that their use can help prevent and reverse damage caused by repeated injury. Research regarding cannabis and sports-related brain injury is young but promising and should be seriously considered when determining the best treatment options for athletes.

However, it’s important to remember that brain trauma does not only occur after blunt force. Another common cause of traumatic brain injury happens when an insufficient amount of oxygen makes its way to the brain such as during a stroke.

The internal blockage of the carotid arteries (which can cause a stroke) is common in those suffering from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes and increase with age especially for those with a family history of atherosclerosis. Symptoms of carotid artery disease (CAD) include a sudden numbness in the face or limbs, dizziness, vision problems, trouble speaking and/or a sudden, severe headache and should be addressed by a medical professional as soon as possible.

A 2017 study found that activation of CB receptors played an integral role in stroke recovery by stimulating the transportation of new neurons to the damage sight. Researchers arrived at the conclusion after inducing strokes in mice which either had CB receptors removed, blocked, or activated by cannabinoids. In mice with either CB receptor deletion or deactivation, low levels of new neurons were detected up to 28 days after the induced stroke. However, mice with activated CB receptors showed a marked increase in neurogenesis at the sight of damage in vitro suggesting that endocannabinoid tone plays an active role in the regeneration of damaged neurons following a stroke.

The ability of cannabinoids to mediate damage caused by oxygen lost extends to even the most vulnerable of us: premature infants. Numerous studies currently attempt to address the ability of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, to minimize and, in fact, reverse brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation during the birthing process.

One of the earliest studies to address the subject was conducted by a team of pediatric researchers in 2008. To test cannabidiol’s neuroprotective properties, the team starved baby piglets of oxygen to mimic hypoxia-ischemia, or birth-related oxygen deprivation, then administered CBD to a fraction of the subjects (healthy piglets were used as controls). They concluded that “administration of CBD after HI reduced short-term brain damage and was associated with extracerebral benefits.” Other studies have shown similar results in animal models suggesting that CBD could be used as an adjunct therapy to improve premature infant mortality.

How Cannabis Protects and Heals the Brain After Trauma

The method through which cannabis protects and repairs the brain is multifaceted. Though the most common reason for using cannabis following an injury is to deal with corresponding pain, the scope of its healing potential reaches far beyond its analgesic properties.

According to researchers Schurman et al, manipulation of cannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and the enzymes that break them down has a profound impact on things like cell death, neuroinflammation, cerebrovascular breakdown, excitotoxicity, and cell structure and remodeling. Manipulation of the endocannabinoid system can also help regulate some behavioral deficits caused by traumatic brain injury such as memory, anxiety, seizures and neurological motor problems. As such, researchers suggest that the endocannabinoid system holds “drugable” therapeutic potential for the diverse symptoms of TBI.

To understand how cannabis helps heal and protect the brain after trauma, we must understand what happens when the brain sustains traumatic injury in the first place. You see, it’s often not the injury itself that causes long-term damage but rather the body’s response to the trauma.

When the brain gets injured, three things happen. First, there is an increase in glutamate, a neurotransmitter that sends messages between cells. The imbalance of this neurochemical coupled with faulty reuptake may result in long-term neurological dysfunction and brain cell death. However, activation of cannabinoid receptors in the brain has been shown to reduce glutamate release thus giving the brain a chance to heal more efficiently.

Another damaging effect of traumatic brain injury is the increase in free radicals, or uncharged molecules that don’t have electrons attached to keep them calm. Because the free radicals are unstable, they bounce around the brain causing damage to cells (including cell death) as they look for electrons to bind with. Enter cannabis, a powerful antioxidant that binds to free radicals to keep them from stealing electrons from other, healthy cells. The US Government has even patented cannabinoids like THC and CBD specifically for their antioxidant and neuroprotectant properties!

Excessive levels of glutamate and oxidative stress (free radicals) leads to a cascade of complications if not promptly addressed including break down of the blood-brain barrier, calcium ion imbalance, swollen brain tissue, neurotoxicity, and cell death. Though the body will naturally try to regulate these responses on its own by increasing endocannabinoid production in the brain, researchers have found that supplemental cannabinoids like THC and CBD can boost the efficiency of the endocannabinoid system following trauma. A 2015 study found that CB2 receptors, in particular, are more active following a traumatic injury hinting at their role during the healing process. Interestingly, CB1 receptor activation seemed to be more dependent on the time of the day rather than the stress level of the event.

The third thing to occur after TBI to induce long term damage is the swelling of nervous tissue. When the brain sustains injury, the body sends an influx of white blood cells to the sight to help fight off infection and further damage. However, swelling in the brain can block fluid transportation causing pressure in the brain which can lead to dizziness, headaches, mood disorders, and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids like THC and CBD are well known. As a 2010 review explains, the presence of CB1 and CB2 receptors on immune cells suggests that cannabinoids play an important role in the regulation of the immune system including inflammatory responses. When cannabinoids interact with these receptors, they help them “mellow out” and function in a more controlled way to reduce stress and further damage.

CBD also stimulates neuron regeneration, especially in the hippocampus which is the area of the brain responsible for memory. Whereas degradation of hippocampal neurons is a key contributor to Alzheimer’s Disease, CBD’s ability to both reduce inflammation and promote neurogenesis in this area of the brain can help prevent or stave off the disease following TBI.

Though some people may mock the notion that cannabis is a “miracle drug”, after reading countless research on the subject, it's hard to deny otherwise. Though its pain relieving and anxiety reducing benefits are well noted, perhaps the most amazing possibility cannabis therapy provides is its ability to protect the brain and repair damage caused by traumatic injury. Whether in the system prior to the traumatic event or used later as a means of therapeutic recovery, cannabis does wonders for the brain after TBI.