There may be a ray of hope ahead for sufferers and their families. According to observational trial data published online in advance of print in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, medical cannabis oil containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may help with behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.
In Israel, where the nation’s 23,000 doctors may imminently be allowed to prescribe cannabis, Israeli researchers observed ten volunteer Alzheimer’s patients treated with medical cannabis oil containing THC over a period of four weeks, finding its administration led to “significant decrease” in delusions, agitation, aggression, irritability, apathy, sleep and even caregiver distress.
Because prohibition severely restricts scientific inquiry, the data is limited. Last decade, German researchers reported that daily administration of 2.5 milligrams of synthetic THC reduced nocturnal motor activity and agitation in human patients experiencing late-stage dementia.
Although not on humans, an Ohio State study undertaken on older rats using a chemical that produces THC-like effects showed rats treated with the chemical performed significantly better than untreated rats in a water-maze memory test.
The chemical, WIN 55,212-2, may prevent inflammation resulting from amyloid beta proteins that are believed to be a key component in Alzheimer’s progression. In 2014, another preclinical study in Florida reported in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found tiny amounts of THC slows production of those same proteins.
One other notable study was less conclusive, with Dutch researchers noting no difference between the test group of dementia patients and the placebo group when 1.5 milligrams of THC were administered three times a day for three weeks. While they discovered no serious side effects, the authors suggested that the doses may not have been high enough and found that both groups improved, potentially owing to greater than normal support and attention from study staff.
Although 23 states have legalized medical cannabis, not all medical cannabis states are created equal. In Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon, state codes explicitly acknowledge patients with Alzheimer’s as worthy of medicinal cannabis treatment. Moreover, in states like California with its broad language (“or any other illness for which cannabis provides relief”), or Minnesota (as a “terminal illness”) or adult-use legal Washington (a disease which results in appetite loss), Alzheimer’s patients may be legally eligible to mitigate their disease using cannabis. In New Mexico, Alzheimer’s patients in hospice are eligible.
As the United States reaches a tipping point on public opinion toward cannabis regarding legalization and medical research, the final holdouts are likeliest to be the very generation of older Americans most likely to benefit from such research. Among estimated 5.3 million Alzheimer’s patients and families, the situation is desperate. Prohibition in the form cannabis’s Schedule I listing has profoundly restricted scientific research, though both major Democratic candidates and a bipartisan Senate bill hope to change that over the next twelve months. The more often medical research shows cannabis can help the people against its legalization, the better leverage physicians and patients will have to further change minds and laws.