Can Cannabis Help Dementia?
Sep 22, 2019
Cannabis has been used to treat diseases for thousands of years. When it comes to cannabis treatment for dementia, clinical research is limited, though there is evidence to suggest that patients can benefit from a short treatment with cannabinoids, and that cannabinoids may even prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, clinical trials do show cannabinoid-based treatment to be safe for people with dementia.
Choosing the right cannabis product for dementia can be challenging, as there are thousands of cannabis varieties out there. But judging by the scientific literature of different cannabinoids and terpenes, products with medium-high concentrations of CBD and medium-low concentrations of THC make sense as a starting point. Other compounds to look for are terpenes, specifically limonene, pinene, and beta caryophyllene, which show potential for dementia and may synergize with CBD and THC.
Medical Research on Dementia and Cannabis
Randomized clinical trials are tightly regulated and provide a high level of evidence, but they’re also time-consuming and resource-hungry. For this reason, researchers and physicians also use cohort studies and case reports to assess how effective a therapy may be. Several such studies point more clearly toward cannabinoids as effective treatments for dementia:
- In 1997, a group from the US reported that patients with Alzheimer’s disease experienced increased appetite and a reduction of disturbed behavior after receiving a THC-based medication, Dronabinol, for six weeks.. Similar results were later reported in two patients with Alzheimer’s who were given a similar dose for only 14 days.
- Several larger studies were conducted in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017, where patients with different types of dementia received synthetic THC two or three times a day for periods between four days and 12 weeks. While these studies suggested that the treatment is safe in terms of unwanted side effects, there were no clinically significant improvements on a wide range of dementia symptoms.
- In May 2019, a Canadian group tried to address some of these kinds of shortcomings. It revealed that a similar dose of synthetic THC was effective for the treatment of agitation in Alzheimer’s patients. Forty-five percent of patients in this study, however, experienced sedation, but not at levels that required them to stop the treatment.
- In 2014, a cohort of 40 patients with different types of dementia was found to be less agitated and aggressive, and more rested after a higher dose of a synthetic THC than was used in clinical trials.
- In 2016 , an Israeli team reported similar results from a group of 11 patients with Alzheimer’s, who were given medical marijuana oil (containing a similar dose of THC and varying amounts of CBD) at similar doses for 28 days.
In 2019, a hospital in Geneva found that a higher dose of oral cannabis extract with THC and CBD was tolerated well and greatly improved behavioral issues, muscle rigidity and daily care in 10 female patients with dementia.
- In the UK, a large clinical trial on dementia patients is commencing in late 2019, and is expected to provide more robust evidence on the efficacy of cannabinoids in dementia treatment. The study would be the first to use a cannabis-based mouth spray containing THC and CBD (Nabiximols).
- Finally, several anecdotal case reports of patients treated with varying doses of THC reported reductions in behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.
Still, according to a recent scientific review looking at the use of cannabinoids for symptoms of dementia, such preliminary results are encouraging. The studies involved people with different types of dementia, and this can mask meaningful effects. Furthermore, the use of relatively small doses of THC, along with other medications, makes it harder still to draw firm conclusions.
CBD and Dementia
Unfortunately, to date there have not been any clinical trials evaluating the therapeutic potential of CBD for dementia. But trials in animal labs and cell cultures show that CBD and THC/CBD combinations can reduce the production and accumulation of the harmful proteins and plaque, which cause neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.
In a number of studies, a short course of CBD treatment in mice was even found to reduce destruction of neurons in the hippocampus (an area of the brain involved in memory formation) and to promote the formation of new cells.
Beyond protecting neurons, CBD was also found to prevent the onset of impaired social recognition in adult lab mice with Alzheimer’s-like conditions. As the journal of Behavioural Pharmacology optimistically summarized, “CBD could well provide symptomatic relief and/or prevent disease progression for Alzheimer patients.”
A large clinical trial in Israel is currently running and is expected to terminate in mid-2020. This trial would be the first to employ a locally-engineered medical marijuana oil (Avidekel), the main ingredient of which is CBD.
How Cannabis Works on Dementia
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) exists in all vertebrates and helps regulate crucial functions such as sleep, pain, and appetite. The human body produces its own cannabinoids, which modulate and activate its various functions, but as its name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can also be modulated and activated by cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Because the entire system was only discovered in the past 30 years, scientists still have much to learn about the myriad ways cannabis affects the human body.
The ECS has recently come on the radar for treatment of dementia symptoms. Cannabinoids of all types – internal, plant-derived and synthetic – can bind to the receptors in this system, and impact processes such as learning, memory, restful sleep and other cognitive functions, which are often impaired in dementia patients. With this understanding, researchers have examined whether manipulation of the endocannabinoid system can be used to alleviate dementia symptoms, or even slow the progression of the disease.
Using Cannabis for Dementia
Deciding which cannabis variety to use can be challenging. There are thousands of different cannabis varieties (aka strains) out there, each with its own unique chemical profile. And since most of the clinical research uses cannabinoid-based medications rather than whole plant products, you might need to implement some trial and error before you find your perfect fit. Many patients experience some frustration when going through the process of finding the right product and dose, and mitigating side effects.
There is indeed a lack of clinical research when it comes to cannabis and dementia, but you can narrow down the options by looking at the preclinical research on specific compounds, notably cannabinoids and terpenes. There is no definitive answer on the best cannabis treatment for dementia, but the best bet would be to try products with medium-to-high CBD concentrations, and medium-to-low THC concentrations.
- A recent study found that “High levels of limonene in food or medication are expected to help treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease”.
- A 2017 study suggests the “possible neuroprotective potentials of APN (Alpha-Pinene) for the management of dementia with learning and memory loss”.
- A 2014 research suggests “Beta-caryophyllene as an attractive molecule for the development of new drugs with therapeutic potential for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease”.
The Cannigma content is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with an experienced medical professional with a background in cannabis before beginning treatment.
Dementia is often thought of as a single disease or syndrome, but it’s actually a way of describing a group of symptoms that can have a number of different causes. Dementia refers to a decline in cognitive and behavioral ability that is severe enough to interfere with your daily life.
Dementia affects around 50 million people worldwide, or 5-8% of the general population aged over 60, including 850,000 people in the UK. Nearly 10 million people are diagnosed with dementia each year. As our population ages and people get older, dementia is only becoming more and more common. It is already one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. As a disease, it not only impacts the individual affected, but also the loved ones around them.
There are a few different types of dementia. Most of them are progressive, meaning that they get worse over time, but some types of dementia are reversible and can be cured with treatment.
The most common types of dementia are:
- Alzheimer’s disease occurs when beta-amyloid protein plaques and fibrous protein tangles build up in the brain, damaging healthy neurons. It’s estimated that 60-70% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease or a combination of Alzheimer’s and another type.
- Vascular dementia occurs when the blood vessels that carry blood to your brain are damaged or occluded, leading to the death of brain cells.
- Lewy body disorder refers to abnormal protein clumps, called Lewy bodies, that are found in the brains of people with Lewy body dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease.
- Frontotemporal dementia is when the nerve cells in the frontal and temporal areas of the brain break down.
- Mixed dementia displays elements of the other types of dementias Most causes of dementia are mixed, usually a combination of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
The exact symptoms of dementia can vary, depending on the type of dementia, but they all share certain main symptoms:
- Memory loss, particularly short-term memory
- Difficulty with communication and language, like forgetting common words
- Struggling to concentrate and focus
- Loss of judgement and reasoning
- Diminished visual perception
Some other symptoms of dementia include:
- Personality changes
- Inappropriate behavior
- Depression and anxiety
- Agitation and restlessness
People with dementia tend to have difficulty managing complex tasks, like finding a wallet and paying a bill, struggle to remember new faces, and find it hard to remember appointments. They often get confused in unfamiliar surroundings or when faced with a number of connected tasks, like planning and preparing a meal.
When to see a doctor
Many people struggle with memory loss as they get older, so some difficulty remembering things may just be normal aging and not necessarily dementia. But if someone you love has notable memory loss, together with a loss of thinking skills and any other of the main symptoms of dementia, it’s important to go to the doctor for an evaluation. Early evaluation makes it possible to treat any possible preventable causes of dementia and allows for treatments and therapies that make the most of the individual’s time before the disease progresses.
It’s difficult to diagnose dementia because many of the symptoms overlap with common medical issues. Along with taking a full medical history, carrying out a physical examination, and reviewing your symptoms, your doctor is likely to set a number of tests to identify which type of dementia you have. These include:
- Cognitive and memory tests and a neurological evaluation, to measure your loss of function and set a benchmark to track the progression of your dementia
- CT and MRI scans, to check for evidence of a stroke or bleeding within the brain, which could be the cause of your symptoms
- PET scans to look for amyloid protein deposits which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s
- Blood tests for medical issues that could be affecting your brain function, like an underactive thyroid or vitamin B-12 deficiency
- Psychiatric evaluation for mental health issues that could be contributing to your symptoms
Sometimes, you’ll be referred to a neurologist or other specialist to diagnose which type of dementia you have.
Scientists know that dementia is caused by changes to the brain cells, but no one knows exactly what causes those changes. Although dementia becomes more common as you get older, some people can live 100 year without experiences symptoms of dementia. A significant amount of research is dedicated to both finding the cause and possible solutions for dementia.
There are some disorders that frequently lead to dementia, including:
- Huntington’s disease is caused by a genetic mutation. It makes nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord waste away, causing symptoms of dementia.
- Parkinson’s disease generally leads to symptoms of dementia.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI), caused by repetitive or severe trauma to the brain, can cause symptoms of dementia, although these symptoms might not appear until several years after the injury.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare brain disorder that also causes dementia symptoms.
Sometimes, symptoms of dementia can be caused by reversible factors and go away once the underlying cause is dealt with. These can include:
- Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. As a matter of fact, severe depression is sometimes diagnosed as pseudodementia because the signs and symptoms overlap so much they can be indistinguishable.
- Side effects from your medication.
- Your body’s immune system attacking infections, or malfunctioning to attack nerve cells
- Unbalanced metabolism, like low blood sugar, too little or too much calcium and sodium. in the bloodstream, or an underactive thyroid.
- Vitamin deficiencies like a lack of B vitamins, copper, and thiamin.
- Subdural hematomas, or bleeding on the brain.
- Brain tumors.
- Environmental toxins like lead, pesticides, heavy alcohol use, or certain drugs
- Hypoxia, when your organs don’t get enough oxygen due to an asthma attack, heart attack, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
It’s not clear whether you can prevent yourself from developing dementia, but there are some ways to lower your risk:
- Exercise regularly
- A diet rich in vegetables and light on meat and dairy
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake
- Take steps to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Avoid obesity and lose weight if needed
- Quit smoking
- Seek out to learn new things and maintain active social relationships
- Ensure healthy sleep and treat causes of poor sleep
If you have dementia, there’s no way to cure it or to stop it. Lifestyle changes as described above can potentially slow the progression. Prescription medications can help cope with it. Many people find that the right combination of medication, therapies, nutritional supplements, and lifestyle changes can slow down the progression of their dementia symptoms and extend their independence.
There are very few medications that treat dementia itself. The main options are:
- Cholinesterase inhibitors like donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne) that slow down the progression of dementia. They are mainly used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
- Menatine (Namenda) that regulates the activity of glutamate, which is involved in many brain processes.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications that treat some of the symptoms of dementia, like drugs to help against insomnia, depression, hallucinations, agitation, or parkinsonism.
Various behavioral and cognitive therapies can help reduce the impact of dementia:
- Occupational therapy teaches people with dementia how to cope better with their symptoms and avoid falls and injuries.
- Cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) is usually carried out as a group therapy to improve your problem-solving skills, language, and memory.
- Cognitive rehabilitation trains you to use other parts of your brain that are still working to compensate for the parts that have been damaged.
Various therapies like aromatherapy, music therapy, massage therapy, pet therapy, and art therapy can also help.
Although there’s no clear evidence, some people find that certain nutritional supplements and herbal remedies can help slow down dementia. These include curcumin (turmeric extract), ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, and omega-3 fish oils.
Changes to your lifestyle can go a long way to combatting the effects of dementia. These can include:
- Exercise, especially regimens like yoga and tai chi that strengthen muscles and improve balance and coordination.
- Diet, particularly the MIND diet which is rich in fiber, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, oily fish, and olive oil, and avoids fried foods, processed foods, red meat, and hydrogenated fat.
- Setting up rituals and habits, which are easier to remember and help to soothe agitation and paranoia.