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Does Cannabis Help People with HIV Preserve Brain Function?

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Does Cannabis Help People with HIV Preserve Brain Function?

Modern antiretroviral drugs can extend the life of people living with HIV to a near-normal life expectancy—a feat for medical science—but those individuals are prone to potentially devastating declines in brain function over time. 

Through a constantly updated stream of daily pill regimens, doctors can lower an HIV infection to sustained undetectable levels, render it untransmittable to others and dramatically extend life spans. And, the side effects of today’s drugs are closer to bearable. Sadly though, far too many people today are unaware of the normalcy that people living with HIV can achieve, considering the scope of the horror that the virus unleashed in communities in the past. But nowadays, many people with HIV simply seek a better quality of life, despite aging with the side effects of drugs, and that’s where cannabis comes in handy. 

Cannabis and HIV

Cannabis may function as an invaluable complementary medicine, and be especially useful for people with HIV, ranging from its reported applications for neuropathic pain to wasting syndrome, and even its potential to slow the progression of the virus in the body—as researchers observed in monkeys with an HIV-like virus. 

A new potential benefit of cannabis has been observed: it may slow cognitive loss in people with HIV.

At least as early as 2004, investigators at Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health studied the effects of cannabis on cognitive function in people with HIV but results were varied. The team admitted that they found both beneficial and adverse effects. While studies have argued that cannabis exhibits both positive and negative effects on brain function such as memory, a growing body of evidence suggests some more is happening.

Cognitive decline impacts 30–50 percent of all of HIV-infected persons. HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) is a disease relatively similar to Alzheimer’s, which is found in people living with HIV. It’s a disorder that can cause dementia with varying levels of hardship. HIV-associated dementia (HAD) is a pronounced form manifested by struggles with behavior and body movement. Living with conditions like these is no way to live. 

A recent highly-funded and publicized study suggests that cannabis may lower circulating activated monocytes, a type of white blood cell, and proteins which are blamed for inflammation in the brain that leads to dementia. That, in turn, could combat the effects of dementia in the long run. Norbert E. Kaminski and a team at Michigan State University’s Center for Integrative Toxicology examined how cannabis affects inflammation and HIV-related cognitive impairment. First, Kaminski learned that cannabis may extend the mental stamina of people with HIV. The study elevated the importance of his research in the public eye. Last year, Kaminski’s project was awarded a generous $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a sweeping, five-year study. He’s studied the effects of cannabis since 1990, and his work has often overlapped into Alzheimer’s research.

Researchers took blood samples from several hundred patients with HIV and measured circulating activated monocytes and a protein called IP 10 that are typically blamed for leading to HAND and cognitive decline. Levels were measured in HIV-positive participants, isolated into groups of those who consume cannabis and those who do not. What they found was a lower number of circulating activated monocytes and IP-10 in participants who consume cannabis compared to the group that does not consume cannabis. And cannabinoids, they suspect, were a defining factor.

“We conclude,” wrote researchers, “that within the context of HIV-associated neuroinflammation and cognitive decline, cannabinoid therapies may decelerate peripheral immune processes that are implicated in HIV-associated neuroinflammation.” 

Just months ago, Kaminski’s team began using GB Science’s cannabis-based compounds to further their research. But usually, medical cannabis research is limited to a very narrow window of capabilities due to the federal classification of cannabis, and investigators have to heavily rely on patient-reported data.

Pharmaceuticals vs Cannabis for HIV Treatment

There are a few other reasons why cannabis may be more effective for brain function than conventional medicine. HIV penetrates the blood-brain barrier into a region that’s difficult to reach through pharmaceutical drugs. Researchers have noted the “blood-brain barrier challenge,” or the inability for many HIV drugs to effectively treat the body in the brain and central nervous system. Basically, HIV can go where many drugs cannot. Miraculously, cannabis, being highly lipid-dissolvable, can also penetrate the blood-brain barrier, which makes it highly effective for having an effect on the brain and the central nervous system. Presumably, that’s why it’s so effective for a plethora of other central nervous system problems.

Unsurprisingly, the permeability of cannabis through the brain-blood barrier to combat HAND and dementia in people with HIV has become a topic of conversation at recent HIV conferences, including at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections held last March in Seattle, Washington.

Studies like Michigan State University’s ongoing research into the role that cannabis plays in people with HIV could lead to an HIV-specific cannabis drug in the future. HIV pharmaceutical drugs, in my own experience, can cause powerful hallucinations, kidney problems, tooth loss or worse. On top of that, HIV retroviral drugs almost always cost a fortune. Cannabis can abate many of those side effects and ease many of those symptoms. Too often though, we are aware of the benefits of cannabis, but we don’t know how it works.