New study shows marijuana might help HIV patients

The stereotypical pot user isn’t exactly known to be mentally sharp, but new research has found that the drug might do just that — for HIV patients, at least.

That’s the takeaway from a new study published in the journal AIDS that found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may help slow mental decline in people with HIV. Mental decline is a big concern for people with HIV — it affects up to 50 percent of patients with the disease, lead study author Norbert Kaminski, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Marijuana might help HIV-positive individuals prevent a mental decline. (Photo: Getty Images)
Marijuana might help HIV-positive individuals prevent a mental decline. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mental decline in HIV patients is caused by inflammation, Kaminski explains — specifically, inflammatory white blood cells called monocytes that can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause inflammation in the brain.

For the study, Kaminski and his co-author, Mike Rizzo, took blood samples from 40 HIV patients — including people who did and didn’t use medicinal marijuana — and isolated their white blood cells. They then studied the inflammatory cell levels and effect that marijuana had on their cells.

Here’s what they found: People who had cannabinoids (chemical compounds created by cannabis) in their bloodstream had inflammatory cell levels that were similar to healthy people who weren’t infected with HIV. But HIV patients who didn’t use medicinal marijuana had very high levels compared with people who used pot.

The researchers also isolated white blood cells from HIV patients and directly added active compounds from marijuana to confirm that the cannabinoids could actually keep non-inflammatory cells from becoming inflammatory. The thought, then, is that patients who use medicinal marijuana are at a lower risk for mental decline than those who don’t use the drug.

“HIV patients are living longer because of antiretroviral drugs, but one of the concerns is that the longer they live, the more susceptible they are with time to develop neurocognitive disorders associated with chronic inflammation in the brain,” Kaminski says. The next step, he adds, is to try to identify the molecules in marijuana that actually decrease the inflammatory process. “Once we do that, we may be able to decelerate that decline in neurocognitive function or maybe even block it,” he says.

While it probably wouldn’t hurt for HIV patients to use medicinal marijuana if they get their doctor’s OK, Kaminski admits that his study has some limitations. Namely, it didn’t isolate how often the patients used marijuana, how potent their pot was, and how advanced their HIV was. Still, he says, “The findings are very exciting.”

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