Currently there are over 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to increase to 16 million by the year 2050. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, in 2009 roughly 11% of Arizona’s population suffered from Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to increase 60% by 2020. Alzheimer’s is the most prevalent form of dementia. Unfortunately, to date, there is not a treatment for stopping Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative conditions.
Agitation of Alzheimer’s is a qualifying condition for patients seeking medical marijuana certification in the state of Arizona. Of the 24 states where medical cannabis is legal, only 10 list dementia as a qualifying condition. Primarily, medical marijuana is used as a qualifying condition for the agitation of Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, less than one percent of the patients who have their medical marijuana cards have it for the qualifying diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. But, based on fledgling research in the industry, that number may rise as patients, loved ones, and medical providers see medical marijuana as an alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s. If used appropriately, medical marijuana has shown to reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms while having minimal to no side effects and a low cost point. Future studies may further the idea that medical marijuana to treat Alzheimer’s is a low cost therapy that provides patients a natural option with low side effects.
With limited treatment and preventive options, studies are showing how medical marijuana may treat Alzheimer’s. While research is limited and has been focused primarily on post-mortem brains and animal studies, the findings are promising. In these studies, cannabinoids have positive effects on the Alzheimer’s brain. Cannabinoids are active compounds found in medical marijuana. Cannabinoids have been found to target several processes that play key roles in Alzheimer’s. Medical marijuana has been shown to improve behavioral disturbances associated with Alzheimer’s as well. In multiple studies, the benefits of medical marijuana for Alzheimer’s include improved feeding behavior, behavioral disturbances, sleep induction and circadian rhythm and decreased agitation.
During two clinical trials, medical marijuana benefits for Alzheimer’s included body weight increase, agitation decrease, and reduced night-time behaviors. While the sample size was small and the trial was for 6 weeks using 2.5 mg oral dronabinol (a form of medical cannabis), the results are promising. When Alzheimer patients were treated with medical cannabis in the form of Nabilone 0.5 mg daily (or up to twice daily) it was noted that patients had dramatic improvement of agitation and restlessness within one week and there were no side effects noted during a 3-month study.
Medical Cannabis has many properties and derivatives. For example, THC, can cause psychoactivity which may disrupt short-term memory, working memory, and attention skills. The studies on the benefits of medical cannabis and Alzheimer’s focused on low levels of THC and higher levels of CBD. CBD is known to mitigate the negative consequences on cognition of THC, and therefore allows the patient to avoid undesirable side effects. One study has shown that THC can aide in the removal of toxic plaque in the brain, which is a common issue with Alzheimer’s. Additional, THC has shown to reduce inflammation in the brain. Inflammation in the brain causes damages to the neurons of the brain. Family members who have seen treatment with medical marijuana for Alzheimer’s have also said that patients experienced reduced confusion and agitation when using medical marijuana.
There is a huge need for more research when it comes to medical marijuana treatment for Alzheimer’s. Early research is promising and some researchers have suggested that some cannabinoid compounds may even be able to decrease the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s. Due to the fact nearly 1 out of 3 seniors that die each year suffered from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, the need for additional research on the effectiveness of cannabis and Alzheimer’s should be studied.
Aso, E., & Ferrer, I. (2014). Cannabinoids for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease: moving toward the clinic. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 5, 37. http://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2014.00037
Maust, DT, Bonar, EE, Iigen, MA, Blow, FC, & Kales, HC (2016). Agitation in Alzheimer’s disease as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in the united states. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24, 11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27389672
Scutti, S. (2016). Medical marijuana has potential as Alzheimer’s treatment, study shows. CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/25/health/alzheimers-medical-marijuana/index.html
Walther, S., & Halpern, M. (2010). Cannabinoids and Dementia: A Review of Clinical and Preclinical Data. Pharmaceuticals, 3(8), 2689–2708. http://doi.org/10.3390/ph3082689