Medical marijuana will be used to treat dementia patients in the first major trial in the U.K. The trial is funded by Alzheimer’s Research U.K. and led by researchers at King’s College London.
Researchers will be testing a drug called Sativex, a peppermint-flavored mouth spray with both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) ingredients. It’s already approved for some patients with multiple sclerosis. Scientists will monitor 60 patients between the ages of 55 and 90 who are living in care homes for the trial. They’re looking for people who experience aggression and agitation as symptoms of dementia in particular.
“While people most often associate Alzheimer’s disease with memory problems, this is just one aspect of a complex condition that can affect people in different ways,” said psychiatrist Dag Aarsland, the professor supervising the trial. “Many people with Alzheimer’s can become agitated or aggressive, and this can pose difficulties for the person with the condition and those closest to them.”
Cannabis Use in the U.S.
In the U.S., 30 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, but there is limited research on the drug’s affect on dementia patients because it’s difficult to get trials approved, Dr. Nathan Herrmann, the head of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Canada, told Being Patient.
“Based on some preliminary studies in other populations, like younger individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as animal studies, there is at least some reason to theorize these drugs would have a benefit,” said Herrmann. “Therefore, there is a crucial need to do more, and larger studies in patients with Alzheimer’s disease to determine their effects and side effects.”
Could Cannabis Harm Dementia Patients?
Herrmann warns that marijuana-based treatments will not likely improve cognition in dementia patients. “In fact, there is good reason to be concerned that cannabinoids could make cognitive function worse, either by direct effects or by causing excessive sedation,” he said.
The King’s College researchers hope that completing this small trial will result in getting a much larger clinical trial approved to offer more options to people with dementia and their caregivers.
“Current treatments for behavioral and psychiatric symptoms of dementia are very limited, and we desperately need to develop alternatives,” said Aarsland. “Doctors sometimes prescribe antipsychotic medications, and while these drugs can have important benefits, these need to be weighed against the risk of very serious side effects,” he added.
The spray may offer some hope to people suffering from the unpleasant symptoms that sometimes accompany a dementia diagnosis.
“With no new dementia treatments in over 15 years, it is vital that we test a wide range of approaches to find effective ways to help people living with the condition,” said David Reynolds, Ph.D., of Alzheimer’s Research U.K.
“While a major focus for dementia research is to develop drugs that slow or stop the progression of the physical diseases that cause dementia, what really matters is that a medicine benefits people’s day-to-day lives,” he added.
The spray is equal parts THC and CBD. THC is known for its psychoactive effects and is used recreationally. CBD, on the other hand, has been found to help with nausea, mild anxiety and provide some anti-inflammatory benefits. The spray is created from plants grown under secure conditions that allow for consistency in each batch.
“This is a rigorous clinical trial of a medication that has been carefully prepared, and which will be tested in circumstances where the health and wellbeing of participants can be closely monitored,” said Reynolds. “There is no good evidence that using cannabis in an uncontrolled setting could benefit people living with dementia, and we know that the drug can involve risks including short-term memory and thinking problems, coordination difficulties and anxiety.”