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ScienceJuly 15, 2018

Fact check: could smoking weed off a can give you Alzheimer’s? (6)

Teens have smoked weed from the side of a can for decades, and probably always will. But doesn’t that give you Alzheimer’s? Don Rowe called a real life scientist to find out. 

There is nothing on earth quite like smoking weed off a can. Bending, crimping, poking a rush hole just so – it’s the closest many people ever get to being a real engineer. Lifting the utensil horizontally, remnants of energy drink dripping out, that subtle hiss as the paint sizzles off, all topped off with uncooled and acrid aluminium smoke. It’s the Kiwi way.

But is it dangerous? Are those frequent bouts of amnesia cannabis-induced, or is there something more going on? Can, as is rumoured, the beloved can-cone in fact give you Alzheimer’s? I contacted our most eminent brain scientists to find out.

Being eminent brain scientists, they had more important shit to do. Eventually, however, I got in touch with Associate Professor Maurice Curtis from the University of Auckland. Professor Curtis is deputy director of the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Human Brain Bank, and specialises in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disease. He was very excited to answer questions from a moron.

“I cant speak about the way people consume cannabis,” he said, scientifically. “But the argument that aluminium exposes you to Alzheimer’s or dementia is just a myth.” 

Huge if true.

According to Professor Curtis, Alzheimer’s is caused by a problematic accumulation of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid in the brain. These plaques build up in the space between nerve cells and contribute to the degradation of the cell. And aluminium does indeed rear its head like your mum’s friend yelling about roll-on deodorant.

“These plaques do have high levels of aluminium in them,” said Professor Curtis. “But it’s because those things in the brain are sticky, and bind to things like aluminium.”

While there are scientists that go both ways, Professor Curtis argues it’s a classic case of correlation not equalling causation. The presence of aluminium does not mean it’s giving you Alzheimer’s, but it also doesn’t rule out your brain being damaged.

“There are publications that dissent, but I think the most robust information says that yes, aluminium is associated with plaques, but it’s like saying that vacuum cleaners are bad because they’re full of dust – of course they are, but that’s because they’ve sucked it up. Amyloids bind to and absorb other waste products; it is one itself, but that doesn’t mean that it caused the disease.”

Put down the V however, because that’s by no means an endorsement. Inhalation of certain solvents and vapours can indeed lead to neurodegenerative disease. People involved in smelting for one are more likely to develop horrific conditions, says Professor Curtis.

“Foundry workers are more likely to get Parkinson’s but that is down to the manganese; inhaling manganese can cause a disease that’s very similar to Parkinson’s, whereas for aluminium, most scientists would agree that’s just an urban myth.”

That said, Christ knows what’s in the paint. My advice more make-shift bong construction would be to stick to something natural – like an apple.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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