In the United States, motor neurone disease goes formally by the name amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s known informally as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player who was the subject of the film The Pride of the Yankees. He developed the disease in 1938, had to cease playing baseball in 1939 and died from it in 1941.

A man with motor neurone disease who communicates by pointing to letters and words with a head-mounted laser pointer. Photo: Fexcat

A man with motor neurone disease who communicates by pointing to letters and words with a head-mounted laser pointer. Photo: Fexcat

What motor neurone disease is

Rather than a single condition, motor neurone disease is a group of neurological diseases. It sees progressive damage to the nerves that control muscles, making them weaker, possibly to the point of wasting away. It affects only the muscles we consciously control. This includes those we use to breathe, grip, speak, swallow and walk, so problems with all of these can ensue. Death usually follows in between three and five years, most often due to respiratory failure. The condition leaves sensory nerves unaffected. There is no recognised cure.

Motor neurone disease strikes about two out of every 100,000 folk. This amounts to a fair few when, like the United Kingdom, you have more than 60 million people. It can occur in people of any age but is usually found in the over-40s. Many researchers and neurologists recommend cannabis as a treatment.

Studies and stuff

A study of mice by Raman et al in 2004 showed that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the ingredient of cannabis that makes you stoned) might prevent the progression of motor neurone disease. This it accomplishes by lessening oxidative damage and excitotoxicity. Oxidative damage is the damage caused to tissue by free radicals, oxygen atoms with an unpaired electron that seek to steal one more electron from elsewhere to become stable. They leave another free radical in their wake. These cause ageing, tissue damage and possibly a wide variety of diseases that includes dementia, cataracts, cancer and diabetes. Excitotoxicity is excessive stimulation of a neuron, which is damaging.

Another study of mice, this time by Weydt et al in 2005, found cannabinol (CBN, a non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis) might delay the onset of motor neurone disease.

A review of studies by Carter et al in 2010 showed that cannabis “might significantly slow the progression of ALS.” Dr Carter, medical director of the St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington, specialises in neuromuscular disorders. He stated: “Cannabis is custom-made to treat ALS.”

A survey of motor neurone disease sufferers in 2004 published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care had 13 of its 131 participants using cannabis within the last 12 months. It demonstrated that cannabis “may be moderately effective” at reducing appetite loss, depression, pain, spasticity (where muscles are stiff or tight and reflexes exaggerated) and drooling.

Cathy Jordan gets an introduction but may well not need one

The most famous anecdote concerning the benefits of cannabis for motor neurone disease is the tale of Cathy Jordan. In 1986, she received notice that she had the condition and could expect to live for no more than a further five years. She considered suicide. Now, Cathy will tell you: “All my docs are retired or dead.” In 1996, she received a letter from the federal government asking her to prove she was still alive, as she had “outlived your expiration date.”

A good time to have Cotton Mouth Syndrome

Did you ever bewail that smoking cannabis gave you Cotton Mouth Syndrome? If so, you should bear in mind that people suffering from motor neurone disease have problems with swallowing. The resultant excess saliva causes drooling, making cannabis an even better idea.

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