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Can a Cannabis-Based Drug Help Treat Dementia?

An important new study out of the UK will test Sativex's effectiveness on patients suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.

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A new study from the UK will test whether a cannabis-based drug might benefit those suffering from dementia.

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The drug, Sativex, has already been approved in the United Kingdom to treat muscle stiffness and tightness experienced by people with multiple sclerosis.

Researchers will focus on Sativex's effect on dementia patients' changes in behavior, particularly increased agitation and aggression.

Dementia, which can be caused by Alzheimer's and other diseases, involves a loss of memory and thinking skills.

"This can often be one of the most challenging aspects of the illness, both for the person with dementia and those caring for them," according to a news release on the new study from Alzheimer's Research UK, which funded the study.

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The details

Researchers with King's College London will run the study. They plan to recruit volunteers between the ages of 55 and 90, all of whom have Alzheimer's Disease, live in care homes and have shown symptoms of agitation and aggression.

The patients will take Sativex for a month, with results compared between those taking the drug and those taking a placebo. Depending on the outcome, researchers will then decide whether the drug shows enough promise to get tested in a larger clinical trial.

Sativex is a peppermint-flavored mouth spray that contains both THC and CBD. Plants grown to make the drug are cultivated through a license with the UK government.

Cautious optimism

Dag Aarsland, one of the King's College London researchers, said the study is important because of the limited options currently for those who experience these symptoms. He said in some cases doctors may prescribe antipsychotic medication, but the benefits must be weighed against potentially serious side effects.

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"We desperately need to develop alternatives," he said in the statement. "Many people with Alzheimer's can become agitated or aggressive, and this can pose difficulties for the person with the condition and those closest to them."

The Alzheimer's Society welcomes research into the area, although it is also quick to point out that no research has yet been done to indicate that cannabis has the potential for lessening the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease or dementia.

In an Alzheimer's Society blog post on the issue of cannabis possibly treating dementia-related agitation and aggression, Dr. Krista Lanctot wrote that treating these symptoms without drugs is the first choice. But she wrote that in some cases, medication is needed.

She pointed to a small study in Toronto at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, in which Alzheimer's patients were given a synthetic form of a cannabinoid called nabilone. They found that the drug "not only significantly reduced agitation compared to the placebo, but it also improved behavioral symptoms overall."

She added, "The most common side effect we found was increased sedation."

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