Marijuana and Alzheimer’s: The Effectiveness of Cannabis

by Aly Payne,

Organizing clinical studies for the effectiveness of using medical marijuana for Alzheimer’s and dementia was impossible until recently. No clinical ethics board would approve using a federally scheduled drug on people with an irreversible, progressive brain disease.

However, this is beginning to change. Promising studies on treating epilepsy with cannabis-derived compounds have paved the way for a new approach for developing cannabis-based therapies for a broad range of mental and cognitive disorders, including dementia.

Despite the long-standing federal ban on medical cannabis, institutions around the globe are looking further into the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds. The treatment of dementia is one of the areas in which researchers are making promising developments.

Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. Dementia is an umbrella term for a broad variety of diseases that affect the brain. People who suffer from it gradually lose the ability to think, remember, and reason as a result of biological changes in the brain.

These changes typically begin to occur up to ten years before the patient reports any symptoms. They are characterized by abnormal plaque and protein build ups that result in neurons losing connection with one another.

As of 2019, researchers don’t agree on any single cause of Alzheimer’s Disease. Studies seem to indicate that a broad variety of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors all contribute to the onset of the disease over time.

While Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be cured, it can be treated. Most doctors currently use some form of cholinesterase inhibitor – a type of drug that blocks certain enzymes from breaking down the chemicals used by nerve cells use to communicate inside the brain. These drugs can carry serious side effects and may interact with other medications in unpredictable ways.

Why Use Cannabis Products to Treat Alzheimer’s Disease?

While cholinesterase inhibitors are known to help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, they don’t always work as prescribed, and doctors do not have many other options to choose from. In some cases, side effects like nausea and insomnia reduce patients’ quality of life.

Cannabis compounds are known to treat both nausea and insomnia effectively. But anecdotal evidence points to even greater potential for using cannabis to treat Alzheimer’s. The Spier Family Foundation is funding clinical studies into the effectiveness of cannabis for treating this form of dementia because of its effect on Greg Spier, the family patriarch.

Preliminary studies have already shown promising results:

  • A 2018 study published in Neuroscience found that exposing mice with Alzheimer’s to THC resulted in better memory performance and reduced neuronal loss compared to a control group.
  • A 2016 study confirmed that THC promotes the removal of harmful proteins known to contribute to Alzheimer’s in human brain cells.
  • A 2014 study found that THC inhibits the buildup of amyloid plaque – the specific kind linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.

It’s important to note that the studies above were not performed on human participants. However, small clinical studies with human participants have shown promising results as well. Numerous studies on both animals and humans have found that the anti-inflammatory effects of CBD – a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis – can prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s over time.

There is another reason why Alzheimer’s patients and their families have expressed a great deal of interest in cannabis alternatives to traditional dementia drugs: cost. It’s not uncommon for dementia patients to pay up to $500 for a 30-day supply of the cholinesterase inhibitor Namzaric.

Compared to the cost of a low-dosage edible or oral CBD product, the economic advantages alternative treatments offer is clear. Alzheimer’s patients may be able to eliminate problematic side effects associated with cholinesterase inhibitors while spending substantially less on dementia treatment.

Even if cannabis does not prove itself to be a dementia wonder-drug, it could present a viable alternative treatment for tens of thousands of Alzheimer’s patients throughout the world. Renewed medical interest in marijuana’s potential to treat this form of dementia is already leading to new studies that will determine why and how cannabis can help.

Ongoing and Future Clinical Studies

While researchers have obtained promising results from small-scale clinical testing, the time for rigorous, large-scale clinical studies is here. Several organizations around the world are preparing to undertake these studies, the results of which will provide a much clearer explanation of exactly how cannabis compounds impact the onset and development of Alzheimer’s Disease in humans.

  • King’s College London will run a clinical study on the effect of THC and CBD on dementia patients in Fall 2019. The study is particularly focused on reducing agitation and aggression in dementia patients, which are common obstacles to effectively rendering further treatment and ensuring patient compliance. The study’s lead researchers hope that oral cannabis will prove itself to be a viable alternative to antipsychotic drugs.
  • The Spier Family Foundation is funding studies alongside MIND (the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean University), with research aimed specifically at targeting sufferers of Alzheimer’s Disease. The study seeks to determine which cannabis compounds are most effective towards treating Alzheimer’s and whether the main psychoactive compound, THC, is therapeutically valuable.

There is currently no clinical study planned for determining the impact of CBD alone on Alzheimer’s patients. With luck, the results of the two studies now underway will inspire researchers to look into the effects of CBD and other cannabinoids, which may offer the secret to treating dementia in a safe, low-cost manner.

These as well as future clinical studies may reveal which cannabis compounds are most effective at treating dementia, leading to more effective products designed to treat the specific challenges that Alzheimer’s Disease presents.