Neuroprotective Effects of CBD Explained

A women's hand with the palm up like it's holding the sun and a hologram of a brain above the sun.

CBD offers a great deal of potential when it comes to neuroprotection. Read on to learn more about the implications of recent research on CBD. 

CBD is able to protect human brain cells from some damage over time due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. This is great news for individuals suffering from various neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

In this article, we’ll break down how neuroprotection works as a strategy, how the brain takes damage over time and how CBD protects it, as well as some of CBD’s other characteristics that make it beneficial for brain health.

Is CBD oil neuroprotective?

In order to understand if CBD is neuroprotective, it’s important to fully grasp what neuroprotection actually is, and how it functions in medicine as a powerful strategy to preserve the functioning of one of the most important and complicated organs in the entire human body: the brain.

What is neuroprotection?

Neuroprotection can refer to a certain quality of a chemical compound or behavior, as well as a medical strategy to limit damage to the brain. Neuroprotective strategies usually protect the brain by maintaining the right levels of compounds needed for healthy, non-degenerative brain function, limiting unnecessary compounds, and lowering levels of brain functions that can be harmful to us in the long run. 

In addition to the more obvious behaviors that protect our brains and bodies over time, like regular exercise, mental stimulation, maintenance of one’s mental health, and tending to underlying health problems early, supplements and dietary changes are often integral to maintaining brain health. Some common neuroprotective foods include: 

  • Leafy greens
  • Blueberries
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Fish high in healthy fats
  • Healthy oils like olive oil
  • Whole grains

These foods and behaviors help to mitigate harmful effects in the brain that can cause damage over time, such as:

  • Inflammation, which can cause an unpleasant immune response that may result in the death or damage of neurons
  • Buildup of excess proteins in the brain, which can negatively impact the way that it functions
  • Buildup of excess iron in the brain, which appears to be a factor in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
  • Unnecessary overstimulation of brain cells(also referred to as excitotoxicity), which can end in the damage or destruction of brain cells
  • Damage to the brain cells’ energy centers(called mitochondria), which can severely impact functioning
  • Stress from natural processes like oxidation, which may create excessive levels of particles known as free radicals, which can cause cell damage over time if not cleaned out by antioxidants

New research on neuroprotection seems to point to the fact that when implemented into an individual’s life before degeneration has gotten too bad, the brain’s health can be preserved (although, as of right now, most neuroprotective strategies are not focused on rebuilding brain health). This is great news for the treatment of individuals with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or Multiple Sclerosis, or for those who may be at high risk to develop those later on in life. 

If you know much about CBD, it might have already occurred to you that CBD could be a great candidate for a new and powerful neuroprotective supplement. After all, it’s well-known for being a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (a compound that eliminates harmful particles like free radicals). 

Furthermore, CBD has been shown to have great potential for treating issues like anxiety and depression, in addition to potentially offering relief to mental health conditions that have psychotic features like schizophrenia. Alleviating chronic mental health issues can help to protect the brain further, by increasing cognitive function and increasing the likelihood that individuals will engage in lifestyle factors that contribute to their cognitive well-being. Additionally, this benefit of CBD can help to alleviate unpleasant mental health symptoms in individuals already suffering from neurodegenerative disease.

A graphic of a human brain firing electric impulses on the right and a zoomed in shot of a neuron on the left.

In summary:

  • Neuroprotection is a medical strategy to protect the brain from harmful processes like inflammation, excess protein buildup, excess iron buildup, overstimulation, mitochondrial damage, and oxidation. 
  • Neuroprotection is crucial in the treatment and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Multiple Sclerosis, among others. 
  • CBD shows a great deal of potential as a neuroprotective supplement, since it is a known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. 

How does CBD act on the brain?

While the body-based effects of CBD are often the most noticeable — like a reduction in stress or lessened physical pain — CBD actually interacts with the brain in ways that we might not even notice while taking it. In addition to boosting mood, it is able to interact with something called the endocannabinoid system in our bodies in order to help modulate and regulate the processes going on in our brains.

The endocannabinoid system

When we use CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids, they are able to take effect on us and our brains by binding to a huge system in our bodies called the endocannabinoid system (or the ECS), which is already built to react to cannabinoids in a variety of ways. Everyone has an ECS, regardless of whether they’ve used cannabis products, because they are actually primarily designed to have interactions with substances naturally created by our bodies called endocannabinoids (literally “inner cannabinoids”). 

These, like cannabinoids from cannabis, also bind to receptors in the ECS, and they play a huge role in regulating a variety of bodily processes. While research on the ECS is still quite recent, it is currently thought to play a regulatory role in a wide variety of critical processes in the body, including appetite, sleep, mood, fertility, temperature control, pleasure, your immune system, and more. It even plays a major role in regulating vital cell processes like recycling damaged cell matter and destroying sick or unhealthy cells, like cancerous tumours. 

All of that is to say that it is shockingly vital, as it generally carries out the homeostatic processes that allow humans to maintain internal order and keep functioning. This wide-ranging importance means that cannabinoids, endogenous or otherwise, can have wide ranging positive effects when they bind to ECS receptors. 

Currently, scientists have identified two primary types of cannabinoid receptors, termed CB1 and CB2 receptors. While both receptors have the same general relationship to cannabinoids, their function and role in the body is somewhat different. CB1 receptors play a large role in brain function, and studies have shown that they are found most densely in the brain and central nervous system (though they do still appear in other parts of the body). By contrast, CB2 receptors are found most densely clustered throughout the rest of the body, though they are still extant in the brain and central nervous system. CB1 is more closely linked with impacting mood, memory, pain, and cognition, while CB2 is linked with immune system reactions. 

CB1 receptors are also more concentrated in certain areas of the brain and not others. For instance, CBD does not really interact with receptors in the brain’s stem, which is why it does not really have an impact on breathing or heart rate beyond the effects that occur when you limit stress and dilate the blood vessels. Instead, CB1 receptors are found in abundance in places like the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and hippocampus, indicating that CBD and other cannabinoids have an impact on our moods, cognition, memory, motor control, and pain regulation.

In summary:

  • Our body’s endocannabinoid system is a huge cell-signalling system that regulates a great number of functions in both our bodies and brains. 
  • While the system is named for cannabis, our bodies naturally make cannabinoids that interact with the ECS, regardless of whether or not we’ve used cannabis or cannabis products before. 
  • There are two main types of cannabinoid receptors that cannabinoids bind to: CB1 and CB2 receptors. 
  • CB1 receptors mainly impact the brain’s functions, while CB2 is in the body and controls more immune function. 

Current research on the neuroprotective effects of CBD

Research on CBD’s neuroprotective effects are in the early stages — however, the research is very much still there, and the body of research should only continue to grow as the scientific community begins to understand the potential of CBD even more. In general, studies researching CBD’s neuroprotective effects are generally positive, and show a lot of promise.

CBD molecule written on a whiteboard with a lush green cannabis leaf to the right.

How CBD can be neuroprotective:

  1. CBD limits inflammation

One of CBD’s most frequently emphasized benefits is its ability to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is actually the result of a very helpful response by your body, which is its immune response. However, inflammation can get out of hand when it causes further damage to the inside of your body, when it causes pain, or when your immune system is attacking itself. 

CBD is theorized to be able to reduce inflammatory responses in the brain in part by modulating your immune system to have less of an inflamed response by reducing the number of inflammatory cytokines made at the site your immune system is targeting. Additionally, the endocannabinoid system is tasked (among other responsibilities) with keeping the immune system in check and regulated, which means that CBD may have other mechanisms by which it can limit inflammatory immune responses. 

This quality is a major boon, as inflammation in the brain results in some of the more frightening and damaging conditions that affects brain health. Chronic or acute neuroinflammation is most often associated with damage to brain cells even though inflammation is necessary to maintain our bodies. When it comes to damage to the nervous system, for instance, inflammation will crop up at the site of injury and exacerbate damage that has already been done — part of what makes traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries so difficult and dangerous. This characteristic can also help to limit the damage done by neuroinflammatory diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and MS. 

  1. CBD is an antioxidant

When your body undergoes natural processes, like metabolism, it can create many byproducts — some of which are much more helpful than others. Some byproducts of metabolism, in fact, can be very dangerous, such as free radicals. 

Free radicals are molecules — often, in this case, unpaired oxygen — that are missing an electron. They will try to pull electrons away from other molecules, causing structural damage to your body over time. This damage is called oxidative stress, and it is responsible for many negative changes that happen to our bodies over time, such as changes related to aging, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders. When the damage occurs to our neurons, it can also result in neurodegenerative diseases, like Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s. 

Thankfully, your body has methods of combating free radicals: particles called antioxidants. These particles will donate an electron to free radicals without becoming free radicals themselves, limiting damage to the cells. CBD is a very effective antioxidant, and has been shown experimentally to be able to protect neurons from damage from simulated Parkinson’s through its antioxidant effects. 

  1. CBD fights excitotoxicity

While using your brain is great, sometimes things go wrong in your brain and your neurons begin firing off a little too much. This can happen when your brain has excess levels of the natural, necessary neurotransmitter glutamate, which helps to regulate communication between brain cells and plays a role in learning and memory. It can also occur if your brain has become too sensitive to glutamate and begins firing off more than it needs to. This overuse of your neurons can cause them damage over time, potentially resulting in cell death. This entire process of overuse resulting in damage is called excitotoxicity. 

Excitotoxicity plays a role in many neurological disorders, including MS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and ALS, and may also result from traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injuries. 

Fortunately, CBD has been demonstrated to be potentially effective at fighting off excitotoxicity. In both experimental models and studies of whole organisms, CBD has been shown to be effective at fighting off damage from excitotoxicity. Additionally, CBD’s status as an antioxidant may doubly help with glutamate regulation, making it especially beneficial for preventing neurological damage.

Studies on CBD and neuroprotection

Fortunately, scientists don’t have to rely merely on extrapolation regarding CBD’s neuroprotective effects — certain studies have shown that it actually has some viability in the real world, and that it may prove to be an effective treatment in the future. 

For instance, in one study from 2021, a group of scientists tested CBD’s ability to combat oxidative stress by putting hydrogen peroxide on a culture of rat neurons. The findings showed that, at low doses, CBD was able to protect the neurons from a dangerous amount of hydrogen peroxide. Other studies on rodent brains using other cannabinoids, like cannabinoid WIN55,212-2, which is similar in effect to THC — many cannabinoids are able to prevent damage to the brain after it has undergone stress. 

In another study, newborn piglets suffering from hypoxia-ischemia (a condition in which parts of the body, in this case the brain, cannot get enough oxygen nor is blood flowing to them properly) were administered doses of CBD in order to protect their brains from the damage of not having any oxygen. Not only was the CBD able to protect the brain cells from damage, but it also was able to limit other negative effects in the body — it kept breathing stable and prevented inflammation in the lungs, and it reduced the rate of seizures in the piglets by over half. 

Furthermore, experimental animal models of Parkinson’s were used in a CBD study to see if it would be able to protect the brain from damage. CBD was demonstrated to be very effective in reducing oxidative stress and overall damage to the animal brain and prevented neuron degeneration. 

All of these studies — and there are certainly more out there simply more generally examining the mechanism by which CBD protects the brain — demonstrate that CBD is not only neuroprotective generally, but that it has the potential for development and application in the treatment of a wide variety of brain problems. CBD has no or little-to-no side effects in the studies shown, and it is almost universally well-tolerated, making it a great candidate for the future of studies regarding brain health and neuroprotection.

In summary:

  • CBD is able to protect brain cells due to three major characteristics: it fights inflammation, free radicals, and limits excitotoxicity. 
  • CBD fights inflammation by modulating your immune response, preventing further damage. 
  • CBD fights free radicals because it is an antioxidant that can lend free radicals an extra electron. 
  • CBD limits excitotoxicity by regulating glutamate levels. 
  • There are a good number of studies out there focusing on the link between CBD and neuroprotection. 
  • One study found that CBD is an effective antioxidant in an experimental model where hydrogen peroxide was placed on a neuron culture. CBD was able to protect the cells from damage. 
  • Another study found that CBD could protect newborn piglets from brain damage while suffering from hypoxia-ischemia, in addition to generally improving health across the body. 
  • In other studies, CBD has been shown to protect animal brains from damage resulting from Parkinson’s disease. 
  • CBD has a great deal of potential as a treatment for multiple neurodegenerative conditions, as well as other conditions that threaten brain health.

Does CBD promote neurogenesis?

In addition to being a neuroprotective molecule, CBD is actually thought to have a mechanism by which it promotes the creation of new neurons in the brain (a process which is called neurogenesis). This has been an incredibly beneficial revelation when it comes to the future of a great deal of neuroscience, especially when it comes to searching for a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

CBD’s pro-neurogenesis qualities may be part of why the molecule has been shown to have some of the effects that it does in both clinical and anecdotal reports. One study demonstrated that CBD was able to promote adult neurogenesis in a model of a rat brain. A 2019 study suggests that there is a link between this effect and CBD’s role in treating drug addiction, since addictive behaviors in the laboratory mice was diminished when administered CBD was able to create new neurons, indicating that this neurogenesis has real applications for medical use. 

Additionally, it’s important to note that the endocannabinoid system naturally plays a role in the generation of new neurons in adults, so it makes sense that CBD would be able to interact with the system and further modulate it. 

All of this points to the idea that CBD could potentially be used in treatments that promote neurogenesis in the future, and that right now, scientists believe that it is a neurogenic compound.

Someone wearing blue lab gloves holding a green bottle of CBD oil in one hand and an eyedropper full of CBD in the other.

In summary:

  • As of right now, CBD is thought to be neurogenic. 
  • CBD has been shown to promote neuron growth in animal models, in addition to being able to have practical effects. 
  • The ECS naturally modulates the generation of neurons.

Can CBD improve brain function?

The answer to this is somewhat complicated, but the truth is that we don’t fully know yet. However, what we do seem to know about how it impacts brain function is mired up in some big caveats — particularly the fact that CBD does not seem to be able to improve brain function in healthy people, meaning that it probably doesn’t have any effect that is inherently pro-cognition. A good analogy for this is comparing running to brain function — CBD doesn’t make runners better at running or faster on their own, but instead, it clears the path by removing specific roadblocks that might slow the runner down. 

In one study, CBD has been shown to improve cognitive function, but only when cognitive difficulties are caused by prolonged and frequent marijuana use. Using CBD alongside marijuana was an effective way to reduce depressive and psychotic symptoms in marijuana smokers, in addition to improving cognitive function in the form of improved attention and memory. 

However, this effect may not necessarily be because of CBD’s reported neuroprotective or pro-neurogenesis qualities. Instead, it may be because of its role as what is called a negative allosteric modulator of the CB1 receptor, which means that it actually changes the way that molecules interact with CB1 receptors, including THC. This is part of why CBD can be very beneficial to individuals experiencing a difficult THC high — it is able to modulate and ease the unpleasant interactions between THC and the ECS, easing anxiety and paranoia. That means that this feature of CBD may have very little use for improving brain function beyond preventing cognitive difficulties in THC users. 

In other studies, CBD has been suggested to have a positive impact on cognition, but only when impairments in cognition are caused by inflammation in the brain. Again, this suggests that CBD is a protective treatment, but that it can’t, on its own, boost cognition or brain function for healthy individuals. However, this may be particularly good news for some individuals, since neuroinflammation is associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, aging, and traumatic brain injuries. 

Additionally, CBD is thought to potentially work as an antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anti-anxiety, which may have a beneficial impact on cognition. Most mental health disorders are partially demarcated by their negative impact on cognitive function, with sufferers of issues like depression or bipolar experiencing deficits in memory, attention, and problem-solving. CBD may be able to boost cognitive function by addressing the obstacles impacting the individual’s cognition; however, once again, the CBD is not improving cognition on its own, but instead removing obstacles to cognition.

In summary:

  • CBD does not improve brain function itself, but instead can potentially help treat issues that are slowing brain function down. 
  • CBD has a positive effect on treating cognitive impairments caused by marijuana use due to its relationship to THC and the endocannabinoid system. 
  • CBD has been shown to help with cognitive impairments caused by inflammation in the brain like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, aging, and brain injuries. 
  • CBD can improve certain mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, which may all cause deficits in cognitive function. 

Does CBD help with CTE and concussions?

Unfortunately, chronic traumatic encephalopathy as well as milder concussions are both somewhat intractable by nature — for both, there are no specific treatments or cures, but instead behaviors to manage symptoms and prevent further damage. Understandably, this has increased the desire for alternative medicines, especially as CTE becomes better known and more widely publicized as a condition. 

Currently, not much research exists applying CBD to CTE. CTE is a disease that is already not very well-understood — the direct causes of it are not particularly well-known, the incidence rate in the general population is not well-known, and it is generally only diagnosed after death. Beliefs that CBD may help to treat CTE is based only on our existing knowledge of CBD’s effect in other neurodegenerative diseases, and additionally based somewhat on anecdotal reports from former sports players using CBD to help with their head injuries. 

However, CBD may still be a great candidate for an alternative treatment for CTE symptoms or for future CTE research. Primarily, CBD can help to manage some of the symptoms of CTE, such as depressed mood, headache, and some cognitive difficulties. However, CBD may not be able to cure all of them, which is why it is important to follow the advice of a doctor when trying to treat CTE. 

Furthermore, while not much is known about the exact pathology of CTE, the condition is thought to be related in cause to issues like Alzheimer’s, dementia, or Parkinson’s. Given CBD’s demonstrated potential as a treatment for those conditions, it makes sense that CBD would be able to prevent some of the degeneration associated with CTE.

Finally, CBD has been anecdotally claimed by many former football players to be a very helpful supplement for them when treating and preventing head injuries. One such football player is Nick Lowery, who has come out in full support of using CBD to treat the symptoms associated with CTE. Leonard Marshall is another player who claims that CBD has been a major part of his daily routine, and that it has helped him to reduce irritability and feel like himself again.

A bloody brain inside of a red football helmet sitting on a stand.

In summary:

  • CTE currently has no accepted cures, and there is still some confusion about the condition’s specific pathology, treatment, and incidence rate. 
  • While there are few-to-no studies currently available regarding CBD as a candidate for treating CTE, it has been demonstrated to help the mood issues of CBD and has indicated potential for being able to treat related diseases like Alzheimer’s. 
  • Some former and current football players suffering from CTE and/or CTE symptoms claim CBD is a great supplement for them to add into their daily routines.

Takeaway: Neuroprotective Effects of CBD Explained

CBD oil is able to have neuroprotective benefits as a result of three critical characteristics: its anti-inflammatory properties, its antioxidant properties, and its ability to lessen excitotoxicity. While the research is still relatively young and has not moved onto testing in humans yet, CBD shows great promise as a candidate for treating and preventing all kinds of neurological damage, from preventing damage in emergency case like ischemia, traumatic brain injuries, and spinal cord injuries, to limiting further degeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and MS. 

CBD may also be neurogenic, though the research on this is also quite new and experimental. If this is the case, CBD can not only prevent further damage but may be able to help create new neurons in individuals who have experienced a great deal of neuronal death. CBD can further improve cognitive function, but only in cases where individuals have had cognitive function problems due to neurological damage like inflammation. 

If you’re looking to purchase CBD, consider browsing our directory of CBD products. We offer many different types of CBD, from oils to softgels to gummies and more, from sellers all over the United States with your health in mind.

Josh Murdoch

Josh Murdoch

I was born with Cystic Fibrosis, and although it is incurable, CBD and THC have been allowing me to live my life as a healthy adult now for years. For that reason, I’ve dedicated my career to spreading the good news about cannabinoids. Currently, I work for a vertically integrated cannabis company called Unrivaled Brands that operates in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Previously, I worked on two cannabis farms in northern California, one of which was located in the famous Humboldt County. I’ve also managed a medical cannabis delivery service in Marin County, California. I created CBD Facilitator to share what I’ve learned, and to recommend the best products that I have found in this chaotic market.

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