Spinocerebellar Ataxia – Medical Marijuana Research Overview

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Spinocerebellar ataxia is a group of inherited genetic disorders that cause the degeneration of the brain’s cerebellum. Studies have shown cannabis offers neuroprotective effects, therefore potentially limiting the progression of the disorder, and can help patients manage pain and spasms.

Overview of Spinocerebellar Ataxia

Spinocerebellar AtaxiaSpinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) is a group of progressive and degenerative genetic diseases that cause movement problems. There are many different types of spinocerebellar ataxia, each of which causes the cerebellum to degenerate that in turn causes a loss in muscle coordination. Most cases of spinocerebellar ataxia are hereditary.

Spinocerebellar ataxia can develop in people of all ages. Symptoms usually begin with coordination and balance problems. As the disease progresses, speech and swallowing difficulties, muscle spasms and stiffness, eye muscle weakness and involuntary movement and cognitive impairment often occur. Those with SCA will also often experience numbness, tingling or pain in their limbs, uncontrolled muscle tensing, muscle wasting and muscle twitching. People with SCA live about 10 to 20 years after symptoms first appear.

There is no cure for spinocerebellar ataxia and the disorder is often fatal. Treatment efforts typically focus on managing symptoms associated with the disorder and physical therapy to strengthen and reduce atrophy in muscles.

Findings: Effects of Cannabis on Spinocerebellar Ataxia

While research on cannabis’ direct effect on spinocerebellar ataxia is limited, studies have shown that cannabis has neuroprotective effects, suggesting that it could potentially limit the progression of the disease. Cannabinoids suppress excitotoxicity, glial activation and oxidative injury that cause the degeneration of the neurons. They improve the function of cell’s mitochondria and activation of cellular debris clearance, further encouraging neuron health (More & Choi, 2015) (Garcia-Arencibia, Garcia & Fernandez-Ruiz, 2009) (Lastres-Becker & Fernandez-Ruiz, 2006) (Zeissler, et al., 2013). A major cannabinoid found in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has been shown to help in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by preventing free radical damage and encouraging the formation of new mitochondria (Zeissler, et al., 2013). Cannabidiol (CBD), another major cannabinoid found in cannabis, has also demonstrated its ability to support the health of neural cells mitochondria, causing the researchers concluded that CBD should be considered as a potential therapeutic option in neurodegenerative disorders (da Silva, et al., 2014) (Zuardi, 2008). Cannabinoids have also shown to protect the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s disease by reducing the deleterious effects of amyloid-beta, reduce inflammation, and support the brain’s repair process by enhancing neurogenesis, or the birth of new cells (Campbell & Gowran, 2007).

Cannabis can also help spinocerebellar ataxia patients manage the muscle spasms and pain associated with their disease. Medical cannabis has been shown to significantly improve muscle spasticity, both in mice and clinical trials (Borgelt, Franson, Nussbaum & Wang, 2013) (Baker, et al., 2000). THC and CBD, through their activation of the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors, help regulate the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters necessary to curtail spasms (Syed, McKeage & Scott, 2014) (Smith, 2002). Their activation of the CB1 and CB2 receptors also helps in the management of pain. These receptors regulate the release of neurotransmitter and central nervous system immune cells to manage pain levels (Woodhams, Sagar, Burston & Chapman, 2015). Studies reveal that THC and CBD effectively reduce pain associated with some cancer, neuropathy, spasticity, headache, migraines, and other acute pain and chronic pain conditions (Jensen, Chen, Furnish & Wallace, 2015) (Baron, 2015). They are effective against both neuropathic and nociceptive pain, and have shown to help manage pain that had previously proven refractory to other treatments (Boychuck, Goddard, Mauro & Orellana, 2015) (Wallace, et al., 2015) (Lynch & Campbell, 2011). One study found that 94% of HIV-positive patients reported an improvement in muscle pain and 90% reported an improvement in nerve pain after cannabis use (Woolridge, et al., 2005).

States That Have Approved Medical Marijuana for Spinocerebellar Ataxia

Currently, only the state of Illinois has approved medical marijuana for the treatment of spinocerebellar ataxia. However, in Washington D.C., any condition can be approved for medical marijuana as long as a DC-licensed physician recommends the treatment. In addition, various other states will consider allowing medical marijuana to be used for the treatment of spinocerebellar ataxia with the recommendation from a physician. These states include: California (any debilitating illness where the medical use of marijuana has been recommended by a physician), Connecticut (other medical conditions may be approved by the Department of Consumer Protection), Massachusetts (other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician), Nevada (other conditions subject to approval), Oregon (other conditions subject to approval), Rhode Island (other conditions subject to approval), and Washington (any “terminal or debilitating condition”).

Seventeen states have approved medical marijuana for the treatment of spasms, which are commonly associated with spinocerebellar ataxia. These states include: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.

Several states have approved medical marijuana specifically to treat “chronic pain,” a symptom associated with spinocerebellar ataxia. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. The states of Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio and Vermont allow medical marijuana to treat “severe pain.” The states of Arkansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington have approved cannabis for the treatment of “intractable pain.”

Recent Studies on Cannabis’ Effect on Spinocerebellar Ataxia
      • CBD restored brain protein levels after damage, showing it offers memory-rescuing and neuroprotective properties.Cannabidiol normalizes caspase 3, synaptophysin, and mitochondrial fission protein DNM1L expression levels in rats with brain iron overload: implications for neuroprotection. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23893294)
      • Smoking cannabis significantly reduced tremors, rigidity and bradykinesia.Cannabis (medical marijuana) treatment for motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson disease: an open-label observational study.(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24614667)


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Boychuck, D.G., Goddard, G., Mauro, G., and Orellana, M.F. (2015 Winter). The effectiveness of cannabinoids in the management of chronic nonmalignant neuropathic pain: a systematic review. Journal of Oral & Facial Pain and Headache, 29(1), 7-14.

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Wallace, M.S., Marcotte, T.D., Umlauf, A., Gouaux, B., and Atkinson, J.H. (2015, July). Efficacy of Inhaled Cannabis on Painful Diabetic Neuropathy. Journal of Pain, 16(7), 616-27.

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