New Study: CBN Protects Brain Cells, Has Potential To Treat Alzheimer’s

A new study has found that cannabinol (CBN) protects neurons from oxidative stress and cell death, two of the major contributors to neurodegenerative disorders.

Published earlier this month in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, the findings could lead to the development of new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

What is CBN?

Lesser known than THC and CBD (even though it was the first cannabinoid to be discovered), CBN is a cannabinoid derived from the cannabis plant. CBN is molecularly similar to THC. In fact, THC converts into CBN as it degrades and oxidises.

While it’s not considered psychoactive, it has been described by some as having sedating effects. However, recent research suggests there isn’t much evidence backing that claim up.  

Previous research has found CBN to display neuroprotective effects, and it may have potential in treating glaucoma.  

It’s considered a controlled substance in the UK.

Study lead authors Pamela Maher and Zhibin Liang

New study

While the neuroprotective effects of CBN were already known, it wasn’t yet understood how it  protects brain cells from damage and death.

To investigate, researchers from Salk focused on a process known as oxytosis, also called ferroptosis, which occurs in the ageing brain and is thought to be a cause of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

Oxytosis is triggered by the slow loss of an antioxidant called glutathione, which causes cell damage in brain cells and eventually death.

In the study, scientists treated cells with CBN before stimulating oxytosis. It was found that the CBN protected the cell by protecting its mitochondria, which you can think of as the cell’s powerhouse. 

Oxytocin causes mitochondria in cells to curl up “like donuts” – something that’s also been seen in the brain cells of people with Alzheimer’s disease. However, mitochondria in cells treated with CBN did not curl up and continued functioning well.

Healthy mitochondria (green); mitochondria showing the effects of oxidative stress (blue); and oxidative stress with CBN (red). Insets show higher magnification of the structure of the mitochondria.

“We were able to directly show that maintenance of mitochondrial function was specifically required for the protective effects of the compound,” said senior author Pamela Maher.

No ‘high

It was also shown that CBN does not activate any cannabinoid receptors, meaning CBN-based therapeutics would work without any psychoactive effects. 

“…Evidence has shown that CBN is safe in animals and humans. And because CBN works independently of cannabinoid receptors, CBN could also work in a wide variety of cells with ample therapeutic potential,” says first author Zhibin Liang.

The next step for Maher and her team will be trying to reproduce their results in a preclinical mouse model.

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