Canadian scientists are presenting data on an alternative way of helping agitated Alzheimer’s patients by using a man-made or synthetic form of cannabis called nabilone.
About half of patients with Alzheimer’s can develop angry, restless and verbally or physically abusive behavior that increase hospitalization.
Current treatments for agitation, usually antipsychotic medications, have little positive effects and come with a host of side effects, including increased risk of strokes, falls, and death, according to Krista Lanctot, principal investigator and senior scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
Her team tested the synthetic cannabis in 33 patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s who had episodes of agitation over a 14-week trial. They presented the data at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference on Tuesday, and released the following results.
They discovered that agitation improved significantly over placebo and overall behavior improved significantly also compared to placebo.
“They wouldn’t strike out, they wouldn’t get stiff. They were easier to examine and were calmer and more comfortable,” said Dr. Nathan Herrmann, a psychiatrist and scientist with Sunnybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto.
Interestingly, Nabilone had a secondary effect where it appeared to ease stress for caregivers.
“[The caregivers] were less anxious, less worried…they felt less burdened by having to look after the patient,” said Hermann.
Researchers say they plan on doing a larger study with more patients, a process that could essentially take three more years.
The scientiers admit that since nabilone is already approved for use in cancer treatment to ease nausea, it may be easier to test out on patients. However, dosing has not been perfected and they caution physicians to find a way to minimize potential sedation.
In the interim, marijuana is not approved as a viable treatment by Health Canada or the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
And doctors caution patients that the study results does not mean cannabis can be used naturally.
“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, said Herrmann.
However, it is to be noted that synthetic cannabis usually has many adverse reactions when compared to natural cannabis. This is due to the fact that our bodies have natural cannabinoid receptors that seem to work better with natural cannabis rather than synthetic ones.
Usually, patients who have tried nabilone do move onto medical marijuana at some point and most of them report better effects.