A new form of cannabis is responsible for helping calm patients suffering from agitation associated with advancing Alzheimer’s. The research was conducted by a Canadian team using a man-made, synthetic form of cannabis called nabilone. Early data has shown improvements in patient mood and behaviour after using nabilone. Funding was partly provided by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada in an effort to improve treatment of the disease.
Alzheimer’s regularly causes patients to become restless, angry and verbally or physically abusive. These associated behaviors are often what requires patients to be admitted to hospital.
Krista Lanctot is the principal investigator and senior scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, who together with her team tested 33 patients and their responses to nabilone (synthetic cannabis). The trial lasted 14-weeks after which the data was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International conference this July. According to the study, patients treated with nabilone experienced significantly reduced agitation and showed overall behavioral improvements compared to placebo. A happy side effect was that because patients were less agitated, caregivers were able to relax, and interactions were much more pleasant and efficient.
This is encouraging news because current treatment for behavior and agitation usually includes anti-psychotic drugs. These drugs have only marginal effects but include many side effects such as an elevated risk of strokes, falling and death. Having a better way to ease patients, and caregivers, troubles would be a welcome addition.
“They (patients) wouldn’t strike out, they wouldn’t get stiff. They were easier to examine and were calmer and more comfortable,” said Dr. Nathan Herrmann, psychiatrist and scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences and the University of Toronto.
The timing is also perfect as cannabis is on the verge of recreational legalization and many industries are also experimenting with natural and synthetic cannabis. However, Dr. Herrmann outlined that nabilone is very different from natural cannabis. He said, “I don’t want anybody to get the idea that this is an endorsement of the use of marijuana. This is a synthetic drug, it’s very different. We have no idea what marijuana would do for patients with dementia.” Research director at the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada Nalini Sen is very excited because something like this has never been done. However, doctors are adamant that the successes of synthetic cannabis are not a green light for similar treatments with natural cannabis.
There are plans to recreate the study on a larger scale over the next few years and increase the data available, specifically pertaining to dosing recommendations. It will take some time to research the correct dosages for patients to take but some doctors are pushing for a rapid adoption for use with other diseases. Nabilone has already been approved for use as an anti-nausea treatment for cancer sufferers, which will certainly help speed up the process.