In a world where a guy goes viral falling off a bike, where foolishness is rewarded with glory, our brightest toil in anonymity. They pilot less popular exploits like impeding inflammation in the aging brain, stalking cures for deadly diseases, and, generally, trying to keep us, the folks entertained by falls off bikes, alive.
It’s our curious national condition.
So how does a neuroscientist capture the imagination of a people consumed with any number of trivial distractions?
He suggests “a puff a day keeps Alzheimer’s away.”
Meet Dr. Gary Wenk. He’s a professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at Ohio State University. Dr. Wenk studies how chemicals interact with the brain. His book, Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings, explains how chemicals in what we eat act like drugs inside our bodies and contribute to, or stifle, the progression of disease.
Dr. Wenk has a talent for distilling the stuff of halogen-lit labs into approachable, interesting conclusions. In a Ted Talk, he compared lard to cocaine.
That’s why we reached out to him. We wanted to speak with a researcher who could help us better understand how the molecules in cannabis interact with our bodies. To start, we asked the neuroscientist if, based on his conclusion that foods are drugs, he believes drugs can be food. He laughed at the assertion.
“Yeah, everyone would like to think so,” he said. “I think what you’re asking is that some of the things that we consider psychoactive—are they good for the brain?”
Exactly. We keep hearing about the benefits of CBD, but have also heard about the memory-zapping potential of marijuana. So how do we reconcile those two thoughts.
“That’s the kind of thing we’d all like to know,” he said. “That’s a minor restriction I’m trying to do, is to demonstrate the benefits of the components of the plant.”
Dr. Wenk’s interest in cannabis came about because few other things were having a positive impact on brain inflammation without consequences. It seems our brain is selective as to what it lets in, and most medicines powerful enough to have an impact come with terrible side effects.
“Very slow, long term, chronic, low level brain inflammation seems to be in the background, sort of guiding the pathology in a lot of diseases—like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, age related dementia,” Dr. Wenk said. “So, apparently, the brain can develop its own unique form of inflammation and that’s the reason I got into this cannabinoid research. I’ve been testing compounds for drug companies all over the world trying to find an anti-inflammatory that would cross into the brain, through the blood-brain barrier, but wouldn’t destroy a person’s gut.”
As with other researchers we’ve talked to, the initial insight into cannabis as a remedy came not from a sanctioned study but from anecdotal evidence. Dr. Wenk read a blog about patients who were experiencing the analgesic effects of marijuana.
“They were reporting on their blog that as low as one puff a day was enough to help the people handle some of their pain,” Dr. Wenk said. “So, what we found, essentially, is that very low doses on a daily basis seemed to reduce brain inflammation. And if you do that for a long enough period of time, we find that it reduces brain inflammation and we start neurogenesis.”
Reducing brain inflammation has numerous health implications. Depression is linked to inflammation in the brain, as are some mood disorders. The doses that Dr. Wenk suggests help with brain inflammation are very low—not enough to get you high. Rather, we’re talking about delivering a consistent dose of multiple cannabinoids over time.
“People ask me, ‘Should I just try one molecule?’” said Dr. Wenk. “All of our evidence is use of the whole plant. It’s a complex blend that seems to be best.”
He is also careful to clarify that research around cannabinoids is in the infancy. When talking about impeding or potentially reversing the effects of aging there is much still to learn.
“There are only two or three people like me in the entire nation who look at what we would call medical marijuana,” he said, attributing this to limitations in funding. As a Schedule 1 compound, grants from the National Institute of Health to investigate the benefits of marijuana on humans are essentially nonexistent. Where if a researcher wants to study the negative impact of marijuana on a person’s health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has plenty of money available.
While the suggestion that marijuana may reduce inflammation in the brain, curb the effects of aging, and reduce pain sounds promising, the suggestion that marijuana—or any cannabis derivative—is good for you comes with a major disclaimer: Wait until your brain is fully developed. Young brains are very vulnerable to marijuana.
“One, if you used marijuana when you’re very young, you place yourself at risk to develop psychosis as you get older. Two, if you carry a genetic vulnerability to psychosis, to depression or something, it may unmask those symptoms,” Dr. Wenk said. “But we have no reason to believe at all that marijuana would produce psychosis in a normal, mentally-healthy person.”
Some boomers who made the most of the 60s are experiencing lower rates of Alzheimer’s than their peers who never smoked marijuana. But marijuana is no longer a staple only of the counterculture. Young people today view marijuana less as a rebellion and more as an intoxicant, like alcohol, that should be available and controlled. Dr. Wenk sees in his students a generation increasingly willing to accept the risks associated with legalized cannabis if those risks allow for broader access.
“Each generation decides what risks they’re willing to accept,” he said, noting the turnaround among the students he’s taught over the last decade. “Finding that balance will be as challenging for marijuana as it was to alcohol and saturated fat and anything else.”
Issues to solve, more to learn—it’s a common refrain with the researchers we talk to. But the potential seems real.
“The more we learn about inflammation and its role in age-related disorders, the more we can intervene early on,” Dr. Wenk said. “Maybe we can do things that we’ve discovered and actually prevent Alzheimer’s—that’s the hope of the future.”
More from Dr. Wenk:
Many patients of mental illness are discovering the potential of cannabis to relieve psychological distress and restore their ability to function in day-to-day life.
Dr. Wenk has found that people with a history of marijuana use are experiencing lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. We wanted to hear more.
We spoke with Doctor James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, about the growing demand for more in-depth research into the medical use of cannabis.
Dr. David Casarett was well into his career as Chief of Palliative Care at Duke Health when he discovered that medical school had not trained him to discuss medical marijuana and CBD with patients.