Study Looks at Cannabis for Agitation and Violence in Dementia Patients

Matt Weeks May 30, 2019 0 comments

Neurodegenerative disease is a healthcare crisis for an aging population. 

What visual image comes to mind when you think of cannabis consumers? Many still view it as a young person’s recreation. But, that’s not even the half of it. New studies are showing that the cannabis plant has significant health effects for an aging population, especially among adults with dementia. Dementia is a symptom of a neurodegenerative disease. These diseases occur when vital cells in the spinal cord and nervous system begin to decay and break down. As cells deteriorate, the brain loses functionality, which affects short term memory, coordination, and other motor skills.

Neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s, are some of the most tragic maladies that plague our population — and it’s only getting worse. The U.S. population is aging; as time wears on, the percentage of geriatric citizens is going to increase. A study from Harvard University’s NeuroDiscovery Center estimates that by 2030, one-fifth of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65.

That brings special challenges, because the over-65 population is vulnerable. Today, 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, with another 1 million suffering other age-related neurodegenerative disease. If this trend continues, more than 12 million Americans will be enduring similar problems in 30 years.

Clearly, it’s time for action. And that means exploring options that previously seemed taboo, such as cannabis.

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Treatments That Began in 1997 May Have the Answer

One of the first studies to examine the effects of cannabis on dementia patients came out in 1997, long before medical cannabis was popularized in the United States. In a study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, four researchers found that a six-week course of treatment greatly helped elderly patients to reduce their incidents of “disturbed behavior.” In short, it helped reverse the severe effects of this neurodegenerative disease.

Because of its timing, the study could not actually investigate how proper cannabinoids affect elderly bodies. Instead, it used a drug called Dronabinol, a synthetic form of cannabis. Dronabinol is artificially manufactured to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system in the same way that cannabis does. But it lacks certain crucial compounds that medical cannabis contains, such as terpenes.

Nevertheless, the research represented a real breakthrough in scientific thought. If synthetic cannabinoids could be a novel therapeutic agent in Alzheimer’s patients, what else could cannabis do?

dementia, neurodegenerative disease, cannabis, THC, cannabinoids, endocannabinoid system, Alzheimer's

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Trials Sought to Prove Cannabis’s Efficacy

Word about the study spread and other researchers began to apply for grants and funding to conduct medical trials with cannabis-based medicine on Alzheimer’s patients. One such study, following close on the original’s heels, showed that a four-week treatment of Dronabinol reduced nighttime agitation in dementia patients and also helped to normalize their circadian rhythms. Proper sleep on its own is a huge boost to dementia patients. Normalizing their daily routines can also reduce the mental load that clutters and rattles their minds.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that more research was needed on real cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids showed clear signs of helping patients. But their limited interactions with the endocannabinoid system meant that radical breakthroughs in our understanding of body chemistry continued to elude researchers. To truly discover the full extent of how cannabis could treat neurodegenerative conditions, larger studies needed to be undertaken.

And so they were.

Could THC Be a New Treatment?

In 2015, a group of scientists published a study in the American Academy of Neurology about the use of THC as treatment for dementia. They found mixed results. While many patients saw great benefits, a few suffered from mild cardiac problems when given high doses of THC. In a vulnerable population like the elderly, that’s a cause for concern. The authors acknowledged that THC was helpful in reducing agitation and behavioral issues, such as wandering and violence. The required dose exceeded 4.5 mg of THC per day and should not be used because  the psychoactive prosperities THC can lead to a spike in heart rates among vulnerable patients.

What Comes Next?

Now we’re getting somewhere! With any medication, it’s good to know the limits. This means that with proper dosing, THC could be a breakthrough treatment for this horrible neurodegenerative disease. With new consumption methods that allow controlled dosing, carers can monitor the exact amount of THC given to their patient. However, that would require knowing the proper dose to treat this neurodegenerative disease.

In 2017, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health released an overview of the current trends in cannabis/dementia literature. The document’s goal was to help Canadian healthcare decision-makers, professionals, and policymakers make well-informed decisions and improve the quality of health care they provide.

In service of that goal, the report concludes that there’s simply not enough medical science (yet). In other words – they can’t establish proper dosage guidelines, and urge more research. While that sounds wishy-washy, it’s a huge step forward in finding a real treatment for an increasingly bigger concern. It also offers a solid reason for more funding for neurodegenerative disease and cannabis research.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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