As worms age, their neurons change shape, indicating a decline in the animal’s health. But research from the Australian Centre for Cannabinoid Clinical and Research Excellence has found that CBD can delay that process in worms by promoting an activity called “autophagy,” where cells break down and recycle broken and unwanted cellular components.
While worms and humans may seem nothing alike, the study authors explained that across the animal kingdom, the nervous system – a network that coordinates our actions and sensations – can play a big part in the aging process.
And one key activity that occurs in both worm and human cells that may play a big part in aging is autophagy – where cells break down and remove broken, toxic, and other unwanted components that have accumulated over time.
Previous studies have already shown that autophagy seems to play a role in multiple age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, which typically affect the elderly and can worsen with time.
“Dysfunctional autophagy is associated with accelerated aging,” the study authors explained. “Whereas stimulation of autophagy could have potent anti-aging effects.”
CBD Extends Worm Lifespan and Improves Health
In the study, the researchers used a worm species known as Caenorhabditis elegans. The same species has been used extensively to study how living things age and has contributed to advancements in Parkinson’s and other age-related disease research.
In these worms, the amount of autophagy that takes place typically decreases as the animal ages. But in worms given CBD, the researchers found that the amount of autophagy occurring in neurons and the animal’s lifespan both significantly increased.
In the study, worms fed a typical diet without CBD would live no longer than 27 days. However, for worms given CBD, almost 20% of them survived past that same time point.
In addition to living longer, the same team found that the worms may be healthier as well. The worms given CBD laid over twice as many eggs during early adulthood and exhibited more movement even as they aged – suggesting that they may be physically healthier.
A closer examination of the worms under a microscope revealed further differences.
The researchers found that many neurons in untreated worms would begin losing their regular shape and instead become branched or blebby by day 8. But the number of these “irregular” looking cells was dramatically reduced in the worms given CBD.
When the researchers tested whether CBD could have similar effects on human neurons, they found that CBD treatment helped the neurons grow longer and develop more protrusions that may help them communicate with neighboring neurons.
The researchers explained that across species, neurons need to maintain proper structure to remain healthy and functional.
Changes in shape and size can be “hallmarks of aging” in both worm and human neurons.
“These findings collectively indicate the anti-aging benefits of CBD treatment,” the study authors said.
But when important genes involved in the autophagy process were inactivated, the lifespan-extending and health-improving effects of CBD disappeared, telling the researchers that autophagy must be playing a key part.
Specifically, the research team found one gene, SIRT1, which is present in both humans and worms, that may serve as a key switch in this process.
The authors explained that this same gene has already been widely recognized by researchers as a key player in animal growth and survival.
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While further research is needed to understand whether CBD can have similar lifespan-extending and health benefits in humans, the study authors said that these new findings which link aging, CBD, and autophagy may serve as a foundation for future studies.
“Our results are the first to provide the anti-aging mechanism of CBD promoting lifespan and ameliorating neuronal aging, which forms a basis for the possible application of CBD in improving neuronal health and longevity.”
Calvin Chan is a researcher and medical writer from Edmonton, Canada. As a big science nerd, he loves reading and writing about everything science - from cannabis to dark matter and even alien life. Calvin has a PhD from the University of Alberta.