Painkillers may curb memory loss from medical marijuana

Medical marijuana can alleviate pain and nausea, but it can also cause decreased attention span and memory loss. A new study in mice finds that taking an over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen may help curb these side effects.

"This is what we call a seminal paper," says Giovanni Marsicano, a neuroscientist at the University of Bordeaux in France who was not involved in the work. If the results hold true in humans, they "could broaden the medical use of marijuana," he says. "Many people in clinical trials are dropping out from treatments, because they say, ‘I cannot work anymore. I am stoned all the time.’ ”

People have used marijuana for hundreds of years to treat conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. Studies in mice have shown that it can reduce some of the neural damage seen in Alzheimer's disease. The main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat anorexia in AIDS patients and the nausea triggered by chemotherapy. Although recreational drug users usually smoke marijuana, patients prescribed THC take it as capsules. Many people find the side effects hard to bear, however.

The exact cause of these side effects is unclear. In the brain, THC binds to receptors called CB1 and CB2, which are involved in neural development as well as pain perception and appetite. The receptors are normally activated by similar compounds, called endocannabinoids, that are produced by the human body. When one of these compounds binds to CB1, it suppresses the activity of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). The enzyme has many functions. For instance, painkillers such as ibuprofen and aspirin work by blocking COX-2. Researchers have hypothesized that the suppression of COX-2 could be the cause of THC's side effects, such as memory problems.

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