Huntington’s disease is one of the most debilitating neurodegenerative diseases, causing a progressive loss of brain functions. To date, there are no ways to cure it. However, we may be able to slow down its progression and ease some of its symptoms using cannabis. Here’s how.
Understanding Huntington’s disease
Huntington’s disease is a genetic condition that causes progressive damage to the brain. Because our brains control so much about the way we think, feel and act, its symptoms are wide-ranging.
After Huntington’s disease shows its first signs, people who suffer from the condition will experience increasing difficulty:
- Controlling their bodies and motions
- Remembering things
How is Huntington’s disease passed on?
Huntington’s disease is believed to be purely genetic, passed on by one or both parents. If just one of your parents carries the gene, you’ll have a 50% chance of developing the condition yourself.
What are the first signs of Huntington’s disease?
In the vast majority of cases, Huntington’s disease develops between the age of 30 and 50. The first signs of Huntington’s disease are:
- Mood changes (including depression, irritability, and mood swings)
- Trouble concentrating, making decisions and processing new information
- Psychosis (including hallucinations and delusions)
- Involuntary movements (like twitching)
- Loss of coordination
In some cases, Huntington’s disease can also develop much earlier, in childhood or adolescence. The early signs of Huntington’s disease tend to be more obvious in younger people. They involve:
- An increase in clumsy behavior (falling, dropping things)
- Difficulty speaking
What is the life expectancy of a person with Huntington’s disease?
Huntington’s disease is currently incurable. Once the first signs of Huntington’s disease are shown, the life expectancy is about 10 to 20 years. However, some people see their neurological problems progressing more or less quickly.
Throughout the process, medicine can help handle the symptoms. For example, psychiatric drugs can help with depression and psychosis. Anti-epileptic drugs can be used to control spasms and involuntary movements.
Therapy can also be very effective in helping people with Huntington’s disease manage their motor and speech symptoms. For example, speech therapy can help adjust your speech so that people understand you better, or sign language if you have lost the ability to speak. Physical therapy can help regain balance and coordination to help you walk more easily and prevent falling.
Could cannabis and CBD help people with Huntington’s disease?
Today, we understand that cannabinoids like CBD, THC, and CBG can have an impact on the way that our brains function. They are more and more commonly used in psychiatry, to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD and psychosis. They also show great potential in helping neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and seizure disorders.
Their effects on people with Huntington’s disease haven’t been as thoroughly researched. However, a couple of studies show that cannabinoids have the potential to help manage some of the most painful symptoms of Huntington’s disease.
Why are cannabis and CBD used in medicine?
Cannabis has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Our ancestors knew how to use it as a painkiller, to lower inflammation and to help with mental disorders. However, it’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve begun to understand what gives cannabis so many health benefits.
Cannabis contains molecules known as cannabinoids. The most famous ones are THC and CBD, but there also a couple of others that have benefits for the body and mind too. When these molecules enter our bodies, they start binding with lots of different receptors. The main receptors they bind with are called CB1 and CB2, and they are receptors of the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is a biological system, responsible for regulating pain, inflammation, mood, blood pressure and many other functions.
Each cannabinoid affects the endocannabinoid system differently. For example, THC is very good at lifting the mood and relieving pain. CBD affects our endocannabinoid receptors in a different way. It is more effective in lowering inflammation and reducing anxiety.
Today, most of the research we have on cannabis and Huntington’s disease has focused either on THC or on the whole cannabis plant. However, we have reason to believe that CBD could be a particularly useful molecule for managing symptoms of the disease.
Understanding cannabis research on Huntington’s disease
Cannabis could slow down the progression of Huntington’s
There isn’t any cure for Huntington’s disease, which is a progressive, degenerative disease. However, slowing down its progression could make a significant difference. Not only could it give people who suffer from that condition a few extra years of life, it could also extend the period in which they are able to live independently.
A review of studies published in 2011 stated that cannabinoids showed promise in slowing down the process of Huntington’s disease. To understand why, we need to know a bit more about how Huntington’s disease progresses.
The symptoms of Huntington’s disease are a result of brain cells breaking down and dying prematurely. This is partly a result of a process known as oxidation.
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD can prevent oxidative injury, which means that they may be able to slow down the death of brain cells in people with Huntington’s.
The review also showed that activating CB2 receptors slowed down neurodegeneration. In fact, part of the problem for people with Huntington’s disease is that their CB2 receptors are poorly regulated. By balancing out the endocannabinoid system and activating CB2 receptors, cannabis compounds have the potential to protect neurons, slowing down the progression of Huntington’s.
Another study, published a year later, found that a drug using a 1:1 ratio of CBD and THC had the potential to delay the progression of Huntington’s. The group of scientists gave daily doses of this drug to mice with the animal equivalent of Huntington’s disease. They observed that the drug activated both CB1 and CB2 receptors. This seemed to have a neuroprotective effect, slowing the break down of brain cells in these animals. They concluded that cannabis-based medicine had the potential to act as a neuroprotector in the case of Huntington’s disease.
Cannabis could ease the motor symptoms of Huntington’s disease
One of the most debilitating symptoms of Huntington’s disease is a progressive loss of control over one’s movements. In fact, some of the most common causes of death for people with this condition are accidents resulting from a fall or other involuntary movements.
A 2012 review of studies found that cannabinoids showed potential in alleviating hyperkinetic symptoms. In other words, they could be used to control involuntary movement, spasms, and loss of control over the body.
Research on CBD for Huntington’s disease
There have been quite a few studies on the effects of THC or the whole cannabis plant on Huntington’s. But to date, there is only one study examining the effects of CBD on people with the condition.
Published in 1991, this study found that a 10 mg/kg dose of CBD administered daily for 6 weeks made no difference to the chorea (involuntary body movements) of people with Huntington’s. The scientists behind the experiment concluded that although CBD wasn’t toxic or harmful, this dose didn’t result in any improvement in the lives of people with Huntington’s.
There are a few different ways to explain these findings. The first is that CBD may be more effective combined with THC rather than on its own. There is a theory called the “entourage effect” that states that cannabinoids are more effective around other cannabis molecules rather than on their own. The second reason why this study found CBD ineffective is because of its length. Huntington’s disease progresses over several years and up to two decades. So a six-week study may simply be too short to determine whether CBD could slow down the progression of the disease and improve chorea symptoms.
Could CBD be a potential way to treat Huntington’s disease?
A few different studies have shown that CBD could be useful in combatting the progression of Huntington’s disease and its physical symptoms, but only when used together with THC. The only study we have on the effects of pure CBD didn’t show any benefits for Huntington’s disease. It’s also important to note that there are still relatively few of these studies and that most of them rely on animal models of the disease. It will take more clinical trials on people with Huntington’s to determine whether cannabis or CBD are truly effective in treating Huntington’s disease.
Is CBD safe for people with Huntington’s?
As a substance, CBD has only a few side effects. Most people tolerate it well, and in the rare cases when it isn’t tolerated, it only causes digestive symptoms, lethargy or nausea.
However, CBD could interfere with some prescription medications, making it unsafe for those who take them. If you are currently taking any medication to treat the symptoms of Huntington’s disease, make sure to consult your doctor before starting to take CBD. They will be able to let you know of any possible interactions that would make CBD dangerous for you.
Is CBD legal? Non-prescription CBD products are not currently approved by the FDA. However, research suggests that this molecule is effective in treating a number of conditions. We recommend consulting with a medical professional to see if prescription CBD could help your condition.
The neuroprotective effects of cannabinoids make it one of the most promising treatment options against diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Cannabis could slow down the progression of Huntington’s, protect neurons in the brain, and help patients to manage their physical symptoms. However, more research on the topic is still needed.
Cannabis facts and figures
2018 review of research on cannabinoids and pain
Cannabis for Huntington’s disease
2011 review of studies on the benefits of cannabinoids for Huntington’s disease
2012 study on the effects of a CBD and THC drug on the progression of Huntington’s disease
2012 review of studies on the potential use of cannabinoids to manage the physical symptoms of Huntington’s disease and slow down its progression
CBD for Huntington’s disease
1991 sudy on the effects of CBD on people with Huntington’s disease
Safety and side-effects of CBD
2017 study on the safety and side effects of CBD
2019 review of potential interactions between cannabinoids and synthetic drugs