More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) according to the Alzheimer’s Organization. When the situation gets bad for patients, doctors can prescribe a number of medications that include antipsychotics and sedatives.
A recent case report in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal focuses on the medical treatment of a female AD patient, aged 69, who was a patient at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria. The woman's symptoms on initial assessment included memory loss, poor spatial orientation, paranoia, and mild depression.
Over time the patient’s physical and mental condition deteriorated, necessitating the use of a heavy cocktail of prescription medications to deal with seizures and psychotic behaviour. She also became increasingly uncommunicative and physically aggressive towards those caring for her.
The doctors concluded that, in large part, the patient's distressing symptoms were due to the side effects of the heavyweight medications she was taking, and that these were seriously impacting her quality of life. They decided to see if a low dose of dronabinol, a lab-made form of the cannabis chemical THC might help. The drug was initially created to help treat nausea and lack of appetite associated with chemotherapy or AIDS and is FDA-approved under the brand name Marinol.
The results were really encouraging—dronabinol treatment had a significantly positive effect, improving the patient's mental state and aggression, and alertness. So much so, doctors were able to cut her usage of six medications down to just three. Cannabinoids like THC have a distinct pharmacologic profile that may offer an alternative approach to antipsychotics and sedatives for treating neuropsychiatric symptoms.
Of course this is just one patient—a limitation that the researchers readily acknowledge. Meanwhile the Alzheimer’s Society cautions that ‘speculation regarding cannabis and cannabis-derived products as an Alzheimer’s therapy has outpaced current scientific information’.
Nevertheless there is added weight to this case report as there was a very long follow-up period of 11 years with a close and detailed recording of clinical data and medication history.
'Our report underpins the need for randomized, controlled trials to explore the effect of cannabinoid receptor agonists on behavioral and psychological symptoms in patients in different stages of AD', the researchers wrote.
In Perth, Australia, investigators are already on the case, testing a medical cannabis spray in patients with milder demetia, while Denver recently issued its first license for medical marijuana research to company Med Pharm, who will also examine the effects of cannabis on Alzheimer’s disease.