Researchers also have been conducting studies to learn more about brain injuries, so they can understand the causes and develop new, more effective treatments. One brain injury treatment that is showing promise is cannabidiol, or CBD, which is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid molecule produced by cannabis.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a condition that occurs when a head injury, such as a bump, blow, or jolt, causes your brain to slam into the inside of your skull, which results in brain damage.
When your brain is injured, it releases neurotransmitters and chemicals that cause inflammation, blood vessel injury, chemical imbalances, tissue damage, and cell death. These brain responses are called a “secondary injury cascade” and are responsible for many of the neurological problems associated with TBI.
Although a severe TBI can be deadly or cause lifelong complications, even a mild TBI — which is commonly called a concussion — can cause symptoms that can last for days or weeks.
Repeated TBIs can cause a buildup of Tau protein, which can lead to a degenerative neurological condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE can have a devastating impact on individuals and their families because it can cause a variety of symptoms that affect memory, emotions, behavior, movement, and mental functioning.
In 1998, researchers published the results of a study on rats that demonstrated the neuroprotective benefits of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which are two of the cannabinoids found in cannabis. Although more research is required to fully understand the neuroprotective effects of CBD, recent studies have shown that CBD activates the cannabinoid receptors in your brain that are part of your body’s natural endocannabinoid system.
A 2011 study of mice found that endocannabinoid levels are elevated during and after a TBI, which suggests that the endocannabinoid system plays an important neuroprotective role.
Other animal studies also have shown that activating the cannabinoid receptors in your brain may help to limit nerve cell damage and promote healing by enhancing blood flow to the brain. In a 2002 study, researchers found that mice that were genetically engineered to lack CB1, a cannabinoid receptor found in the brain, had more severe brain damage and cognitive deficits after a TBI when compared to mice that had the CB1 receptor.
Activating another cannabinoid receptor in the brain, called CB2, has been shown to promote the creation of new brain cells, as well as regulate inflammation after brain injury. A 2014 animal study found that mice that were genetically engineered to lack a CB2 receptor had worse outcomes after TBI when compared to mice that had a CB2 receptor. The study also found that the lack of a CB2 receptor impaired the creation of new brain cells.
And, CBD may also affect your glial cells, which insulate your neurons and facilitate your brain’s immune response after injury. Research shows that CBD seems to have the strongest effect on two types of glial cells: astrocytes and microglia. A 2017 animal study showed that CBD suppressed the activity and swelling caused by astrocytes; another 2017 study showed that stimulating cannabinoid receptors in the brain suppressed inflammation caused by microglia in rats.
Because full-spectrum CBD contains a variety of phytocannabinoids, it produces an “entourage effect” that engages both the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain — as well as other cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid receptors throughout your body — for maximum neuroprotective and overall health benefits.
Although further research is needed, some studies suggest that when CBD is used shortly before or within 12 hours of a brain injury, it may help to prevent or limit the damage that occurs after a TBI during the secondary injury cascade.
Although CBD has shown promise for brain injury treatment in the research lab, anecdotal evidence also is strong — especially among some former professional athletes in sports with a high risk of head injuries, such as boxing and football.
Many professional athletes have spoken out about the benefits of CBD for the treatment of TBI and CTE symptoms, saying that it helped to regulate their mood, improve physical function, and reduce or eliminate their use of prescription painkillers and other medications.
Unlike many prescription pain medications, CBD is non-addictive and will not lead to overdose. CBD does not cause side effects and will not result in increased tolerance that requires higher doses to achieve the same effect. CBD also can be used to treat other health conditions that are common in athletes, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and insomnia.
But although anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD may be safe and effective for professional athletes, it also may show promise for the treatment of TBIs caused by youth sports, falls, car accidents and military combat injuries. And, researchers are investigating CBD as a potential treatment for other conditions that affect the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and HIV-associated dementia.
Researchers are hoping to conduct further studies on CBD and how it can be used to treat TBI and CTE, as well as develop dosing and safety recommendations for CBD use. But in the meantime, many people who have experienced TBI or have been diagnosed with CTE are using CBD to treat the symptoms of their condition — often with life-changing results.