Traumatic Brain Injury’s account for 10 million deaths and 1.5 million hospitalizations annually in the US. TBI survivors experience death at around a rate of 3 times faster than the general population, along with a myriad of other long term cognitive, physical, and psychological disorders that can greater diminish the quality of life for the survivor. Over time, the treatment methods and diagnoses have changed in slight, but much is still unknown about the ailment and further research is needed to effectively recognize and treat symptoms in the very early onset of the affliction in order to provide for the most positive outcome in the survivor’s life.
A number of controlled studies have occurred, and while the research is still in preliminary stages due to legality, it has shown promising results. In terms of brain injury and other neurocognitive defects and ailments, cannabis is considered a neuroprotective agent, and being such, has been able to provide fantastic effects for individuals afflicted with TBI. Essentially, following the trauma to the head that leads to TBI, the body releases harmful mediators that lead to excitotoxicity, oxidative stress and inflammation and causes secondary, delayed neural death. This contributes greatly to the effects lasting well over normal concussive effects, leading to lifelong disabilities and difficulties in life. As a neuroprotective agent, cannabis binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system and more specifically to CB1 receptors in the brain and central nervous system, improving neuroplasticity and the overall health of the brain. The phytocannabinoids bind to the receptors of the system, which prevents the release of proinflammatory cytokines that are released after brain trauma and cause damage. Activation of CB1 and CB2 receptors also has been shown to stimulate the release of minocycline, which reduces brain swelling and neurological impairment, and diffuses further injuries to the brain. In one study, a cannabinoid administered to mice with brain injuries caused a significant reduction of brain swelling, as well as better clinical recovery, reduced infarct volume, and reduced brain cell death compared to the control group. Mice that had suffered an impact brain injury showed marked recovery in object recognition and in performing a specific task after CB1 receptors were activated. One study found that patients that had detectable levels of THC in their bodies were less likely to die as a result of a traumatic brain injury than those who didn’t. Just recently, researchers from the University of Arizona found that trauma patients who tested positive for cannabis upon hospital admission were less likely to die during hospitalization.
This overview of different studies show some promising results on a cellular level as well as a chemical level in the control’s brains, but studies are also being released about memory and cognition recovery as well. In a study published using young male rats as controls, an experimental severe brain injury was administered to each rat and then given a cannabinoid treatment. The cannabinoids were a specific CB1 receptor agonist, and in the group given the treatment, the learning and memory abilities were fully rescued. In addition, the group given the cannabinoid treatment was able to recover more quickly from the post-TBI deficit and also found that the treatment fully rescued spatial memory in said group. All in all, the results effectively convey that a cannabinoid treatment targeting CB1 receptors can rescue deficits in learning and memory if administered in a timely manner post trauma. In the study, the lesions on the control group of rats and the group that had the cannabinoids administered were the same; and the question was raised of why the rats with the CB1 administration recovered so much more than the rats with the non-stimulated CB1 receptors – current speculation is that of the affected areas of the brain were not ‘fixed,’ or ‘healed,’ but rather the CB1 stimulation was enough so that the cannabinoids themselves were able to protect the non-afflicted brain tissue that had not been damaged by the initial injury, and that the ‘rescued’ brain cells were then able to effectively compensate for the lesioned/damaged areas. Additionally, the cannabinoid receptor agonist treatment could also have limited cerebral edema and neuronal cell loss, diffuse axonal damage, decreased pathological neuroinflammatory processes, or modulated metabolic processes that preserved neuronal tissues or functions.
All these studies are very promising, and the majority of them have been implemented on a scientific basis, however, the sad facts are that TBI is still very misunderstood and treatments are on an individual basis that may or may not be effective in healing or treating symptoms and managing disabilities. A lot of the time, the TBI patient does not live past 3 years after the trauma. Rates of death are much higher in TBI patients and rates of survival are much lower if not treated in a timely manner, and even when treated in the allotted time recommended for catching TBI before it becomes fatal; the individual is left with uncertainty in their everyday lives and disabilities they need to manage for the rest of their lives. Higher risks are presented for mental disorders and other ailments, further increasing the difficulties associated with living a normal life for the patient. More research needs to be done in order to cement an effective treatment for any and all severities of the traumatic brain injury.