The Ice Bucket Challenge brought attention to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and the need for further research on the fatal disease. This progressive neurodegenerative disease affects the nerve cells causing damage and death to both the upper and lower motor neurons, which are responsible for communication between the brain and muscles throughout the body. Eventually, the brain can no longer control muscle movement leading to patients not being able to speak, swallow, chew, walk or breath.
While there is no known cause, cure, or treatment for ALS, scientists are finding a link between genetics and environment in the development of ALS. With the money raised for research, a key genetic factor associated with the disease was identified, NEK1. This gene maintains the cytoskeleton of the cell, which shapes the neuron. More than 80 researchers in 11 countries led by Dr. John Landers from the Universty of Massachusetts Medical School and colleagues, Dr. Jan Veldink of the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, identified the gene in only 3% of the inherited and sporadic forms of ALS cases. Along with finding out what causes the disease, medications used to slow progression or treat the symptoms are still in research stages.
The use of cannabis as a medication for ALS patients is being explored. A study done by Raman et al. published in 2004 showed in the testing of mice with a cannabinoid treatment that the cannabinoid receptor system has the potential to reduce both excitotoxic and oxidative cell damage. Two of the primary hypotheses underlying motor neuron vulnerability are susceptibility to this kind of cell damage. Cannabinoids were shown to delay motor impairment and prolong survival in this animal study. Along with THC being an anti-inflammatory, it can also provide neuroprotection, which can help treat the symptoms of ALS. Researchers Yiangou et al. conducted a study in 2006 and found that "Spinal cord from ALS patients demonstrate motor neurons damages marked by CB2-positive microglia/macrophages. Moreover, a recent study analyzing activated microglia from the spinal cord in human ALS patients demonstrated a CB2 receptors increase. So all these data show how editing CB2-mediated processes could change ALS progression and how much the endocannabinoid system is potentially involved in reducing neuro-inflammation, excitotoxicity, and oxidative cell damage."
Cannabis treatments can help patients with muscle spasticity, chronic pain, having an appetite, and sleep. Even with the emotional and mental toll that this disease can take on an individual, cannabis can help elevate mood problems and depression. One of the most commonly prescribed medications for ALS is riluzole, and while it protects brain cells and lessens some symptoms, it can produce a whole other list of side effects. This can include fatigue, muscle weakness, appetite loss, headaches, depression, and breathing problems. With more trials and research with medical cannabis as a treatment, it could provide an alternative option for patients without the side effects of prescription drugs.
ALS affects more than 30,000 Americans, and with viral videos like the Ice Bucket Challenge bringing funding to this disease, more treatment options could become available to patients.
Sources: ALS News Today, Neural Regen. Research, Project CBD, NCBI, ALS Association