Medical marijuana may not be beneficial in treating behavioral problems in people with dementia, according to a study released Wednesday.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, concluded that cannabis pills containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) didn’t aid in curbing symptoms such as aggression, pacing, and wandering in dementia patients.
The researchers did note, however, that receiving 1.5 milligrams three times a day for three weeks was safe and well-tolerated by study participants.
“Our study results are valuable since any firm evidence of the effectiveness and safety of medical marijuana in this disease area is scarce,” study author Dr. Geke A.H. van den Elsen of Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, said in a press release. “Ours is the largest study carried out so far on evaluating this drug for behavioral symptoms of dementia.”
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 47 million people worldwide are currently living with dementia. As large groups of people, such as the baby boomers in the United States, continue to age and live longer, that number is expected to increase to more than 75 million by 2030 and triple by 2050.
In many countries worldwide, there is still a stigma and lack of understanding about dementia, making diagnosis and treatment more difficult.
Evaluating Medical Marijuana and Dementia
The Dutch study involved 50 dementia patients with behavioral symptoms. Half received the pills containing THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, while the other half received a placebo.
The cannabis used in the study was provided by the Dutch company, Echo Pharmaceuticals, which provides purified cannabinoids and extracts of the sativa species of the cannabis plant. Sativa strains are known to give off more cerebral effects.
Researchers used the Neuropsychiatric Inventory to gauge a patient’s behavioral symptoms at the advent of the study and after two and three weeks.
Both groups saw an improvement in their symptoms, but there wasn’t a significant difference between the group that was given medical marijuana and the one given a placebo. Overall, there weren’t any other differences between the two groups for day-to-day living, quality of life, or pain symptoms.
The improvements in the placebo group, van den Elsen said, could be from the extra attention and support of the study personnel, among other factors.
While people in the two groups had a similar number of mild and moderate side effects, there were no serious adverse effects associated with the medical marijuana.
“Since the side effects were mild to moderate, it’s possible that a higher dose could be tolerated and could possibly be beneficial,” van den Elsen said. “Future studies are needed to test this.”
As 62 percent of dementia patients in the general community and up to 80 percent in care facilities experience aggression, pacing, and wandering, a drug to treat these behavioral symptoms is in high need, van den Elsen said.
Research Regarding Cannabis and Dementia Lacking
Scientific studies involving the effects of cannabis on dementia are limited and are far from conclusive.
A 2009 review of medical literature on the effects of marijuana on dementia turned up only one double-blind randomized placebo controlled study, the gold standard when determining a substance’s medical usefulness.
That review found the single study didn’t offer any evidence of the effectiveness of marijuana in treating dementia, noting that more research was needed.
In 1996, the Department of Health commissioned a review of all medical and scientific studies done on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana. It found cannabis did have some therapeutic effect for symptom relief and improved well-being for certain conditions, including AIDS, cancer, and some neurological conditions.
“Cannabis and its derivatives show promise of beneficial effects in a number of medical conditions for which standard treatment is less than satisfactory, and further controlled research is fully justified,” study author Philip Robson wrote in the report.
Many U.S. states have approved medical marijuana laws or are considering it, so research into the effects of THC and cannabidiol (CBD) is increasing.
An investigative drug containing CBD, Epidiolex, has received orphan drug status for the treatment of two types of childhood epilepsy.