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The nervous system serves as the human body’s control center, coordinating all of its actions, reactions, and reflexes by transmitting signals to and from every other part of the body. It is composed of two parts: the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and the spinal column, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which primarily consists of nerves. The CNS sends signals and receives feedback from one cell to another or from one part of the body to another. On the other hand, the PNS connects the CNS to every other part of the body through a network of nerves.
The nervous system may also be separated into the voluntary or the somatic nervous system and the involuntary or autonomic nervous system. The voluntary nervous system is the part that controls all the activities that we can consciously influence like walking, speaking, and similar actions that we are aware of doing. On the other hand, the involuntary nervous system regulates bodily processes that we don’t have control over, whether we are awake or asleep, like breathing and digestion. It does this by receiving signals from the brain and then transmitting these signals to the corresponding body part or body system.
The involuntary nervous system can also send signals from the body back to the brain, which then processes these signals into workable information. For example, the bladder can “tell” the brain that it is full, thus prompting you to go to the bathroom, or your fingertips can send pain signals to your brain upon touching a hot surface, causing you to jerk back your hand in reflex. Moreover, the involuntary nervous system also alters bodily processes to adapt to environmental or physical changes. If it gets too hot, for example, the involuntary nervous systems work to cool the body down by increasing blood circulation to the skin, making you sweat.
There are more than 600 neurological disorders that affect either or both the CNS and the PNS. Usually, these conditions are caused by faulty genes (e.g., Huntington’s disease), congenital or acquired structural abnormalities (e.g., spina bifida), damage to or death of nerve cells (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease), cerebrovascular diseases (e.g., stroke, migraine), autoimmune disorders, and injuries to the spinal cord and brain. Bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections may also affect the nervous system and trigger neurological symptoms, either due to the infection itself or due to an immune response. Environmental hazards and lifestyle problems may also influence the development of neurological disorders.
The nervous system works as a whole, and even the smallest disturbance to a single neurological pathway may result in dysfunction. And because the nervous system controls practically every aspect of the body’s processes and responses, neurological conditions result in a wide range of symptoms. These include paralysis, muscle weakness, chronic pain, seizures, poor coordination, mood disorders, confusion, memory gaps, and even cognitive and other learning impairments.
While there are no outright “cures” for neurological disorders, there are several ways to address the various symptoms they bring. These include lifestyle changes that prevent or minimize the negative effects of these conditions; cognitive therapy to assist in managing mood disorders and psychogenic impairments; physiotherapy to restore some of the lost physical functions; and various medications that help prevent the worsening of a disease or manage symptoms such as pain, spasms, and seizures.
Among the most popular medications used to treat the symptoms of neurological disorders is the highly controversial cannabis. Research has shown that through certain cannabinoids, the naturally occurring chemicals in the plant, cannabis exhibits neuroprotective properties and also assists in neuroregeneration, which support brain, spinal cord, and nerve health. This, in turn, prevents and limits the progression of neurological disorders.
To trigger these effects, cannabinoids bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are located in the brain and the immune system, respectively. These cannabinoids — the most highly prevalent of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) — then perform various actions, like preventing the release or absorption or enhancing the capabilities of certain neurotransmitters, inhibiting tumor growth, and promote apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells.
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Clinical trials and studies continue to explore the potential of cannabis in treating various neurological disorders. Epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are among the most popular subjects, although it should also be noted that conditions that worsen the symptoms — like stress and anxiety — have also been included in various research.
Most of the time, cannabis in its many preparations is used to control or reduce the occurrence of symptoms of neurological disorders. However, there are instances when the use of medical marijuana also delays the onset of certain diseases in people who are particularly prone to having them.
Here are some neurological disorders that have been found to respond favorably to some form of cannabis treatment.
1. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is characterized by the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. The most common effects of ALS are muscle stiffness, muscle twitching, and muscle atrophy that eventually leads to weakness. People with ALS end up having difficulties in speaking, swallowing, and breathing. In fact, most ALS patients die from respiratory failure.
There are currently no existing cures for ALS, although researchers have found that cannabinoids, particularly CBD and cannabinol (CBN), can delay the onset and even slow the progression of the disease. Cannabis has also been proven to be helpful in managing several symptoms associated with ALS, including pain, appetite loss, sleeping problems, and spasticity.
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder distinguished by recurrent, unprovoked seizures that cannot be traced to medical conditions like extreme hypoglycemia. However, the seizures caused by epilepsy may be related to brain injuries. Patients with epilepsy usually suffer from more than one kind of seizure that fall under two categories: focal and generalized seizures.
Reducing or preventing seizures is the most common approach in treating epilepsy. Several studies have focused on the ability of certain cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and cannabielsoin (CBE) to reduce or even completely eliminate seizures in persons with epilepsy.
Those who suffer from migraines experience a pulsating or throbbing kind of pain that is usually isolated to one side of the head. Migraines are also often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, along with sensitivity to lights, sounds, and/or certain smells.
Migraine, a primary headache disorder, is considered among the 20 most disabling medical conditions in the world, with more than 90 percent of sufferers stating they are practically disabled during a migraine attack.
Cannabis is useful in treating migraines not only because it has the ability to modulate pain signals by activating cannabinoid receptors in the brain, but also because it can reduce the frequency of migraine headaches in 85% of participants. Cannabis also exhibits antiemetic effects and may possibly counter the appetite loss that comes with a migraine attack.
4. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis or MS is a neurological disorder wherein the insulating covers of nerve cells (called myelin sheaths) in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, disrupting the ability of several parts of the nervous system to communicate properly. MS has a wide range of physical, mental, and even psychiatric symptoms that include muscle weakness, blindness in one eye, difficulties in coordination and balance (ataxia), and dysarthria, a speech disorder characterized by the poor articulation of phonemes.
Patients with MS may suffer from relapsing or progressive attacks, in which new symptoms may occur or disappear completely. However, the damage from MS is usually permanent especially as the diseases advances into its later stages.
Some studies have looked into the potential of cannabis to slow down the neurodegenerative process of MS by encouraging neuroprotection (and thus promote neuroregeneration) and regulating the body’s immune response, while others have found that cannabinoids reduce the damage to myelin sheaths caused by inflammations. A study published in the journal Neuropharmacology also delved into the ability of cannabinoids to delay the progression of MS even as it improves motor coordination in patients.
5. Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a degenerative disorder of the CNS that affects the motor system, with symptoms that slowly manifest over time. The earliest manifestations include tremors, spasticity, sensory problems, and difficulty with walking. Patients may also have depression and anxiety and other related emotional problems. People with advanced PD may also suffer from behavioral problems and dementia.
PD often occurs in people over 60, although symptoms may also appear in people younger than 50. This is called young-onset PD. Life expectancy after diagnosis is between 7 and 14 years, although with proper medication, patients with PD may very well exceed this calculation. Actor Michael J. Fox, in particular, has had the disease for 27 years (he was diagnosed in 1991 at age 29) and has become one of the most well-known advocates for research toward finding a cure for PD since the year 2000.
Like other neurological disorders, slowing down the progression of Parkinson’s is key to treating the disease. Cannabis’s neuroprotective effects help achieve this effect for PD patients, while its capability to suppress excitotoxicity and oxidative injury promotes neuron health and delays neuron degeneration. THC and CBD have also been shown to encourage the formation and support the health of the mitochondria in neural cells, which in turn delays the pathogenesis of PD.
6. Tourette’s Syndrome
Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive involuntary movements and vocalizations (motor and vocal tics). Common tics include throat clearing, coughing, sniffing, and blinking, while a minority of patients exhibit echolalia (repeating the words of others) and/or palilalia (repeating your own words). Meanwhile, coprolalia (involuntary and repetitive use of obscene or taboo words or phrases), the most publicized symptom of Tourette’s, occurs only in 10% of Tourette’s patients and is actually not required to be diagnosed with the disease.
These motor and vocal tics usually increase and decrease in frequency and severity — called waxing and waning — and are often preceded by unwanted urges or sensations in the affected muscles. However, these tics can be temporarily suppressed by psychobehavioral therapy. Cannabis also helps suppress these tics and may even help address behavioral problems associated with Tourette’s like ADHD.
7. Peripheral Neuropathy
As its name suggests, peripheral neuropathy is caused by damage to the peripheral nerves that cause pain, numbness, and weakness in various parts of the body, although the most common locations are the hands and feet. There are several reasons for peripheral neuropathy, including infections, traumatic injuries, and metabolic problems. In fact, diabetes is one of the leading causes of peripheral neuropathy.
Standard prescription medications can help ease neuropathic pain, which many patients generally describe as stabbing, tingling, or burning. Cannabis has also been found to be effective against chronic neuropathic pain. In fact, a group of researchers also discovered that cannabis-based treatments can reduce neuropathic pain that may be resistant to other kinds of medication.
There are other technologies that have shown their potential in preventing, treating, and/or curing neurological conditions, like stem cell and gene therapy, genomic profiling, and brain biomarkers. As we wait for these innovations to finally be deemed viable, however, it’s fortunate that patients with these diseases can rely on alternative medications like cannabis that have already been proven effective in managing their symptoms.
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