In past studies, researchers determined that the main active chemicals in the drug marijuana produce a variety of effects by connecting to specific sites on nerve cells, called cannabinoid receptors. Researchers also discovered that these receptors normally bind to natural internal chemicals, dubbed cannabinoids.
"Understanding how marijuana and the brain's own natural cannabinoid system works is helping researchers design new medicines," says cannabinoid expert Daniele Piomelli, PhD, of the University of California in Irvine. "It's believed that the controlled therapies that come out of this research might provide select benefits to patients while avoiding some of the unwanted effects seen with the drug."
Research from California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco points to the promise of marijuana-like treatments for those with the fatal brain disorder ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Our research indicates that select marijuana compounds, including THC, significantly slow the disease process and extend the life of mice with ALS," says study author Mary Abood, PhD.
The study extends earlier work from Abood's group that found that THC also can alleviate some ALS symptoms, like muscle spasms, in patients.
ALS wreaks its havoc by harming nerve cells that control muscles. As a consequence of the damage, an estimated 5,000 Americans afflicted annually experience progressive muscle weakness that can hinder movement, speech, even swallowing and breathing. New treatments for ALS are desperately needed.