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Large Study Will Examine THC Treatment For Alzheimer's Patients

Previous studies have found an association between using a synthetic THC product and lower levels of agitation in people with moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer's disease.

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Canadian researchers recently received a $1.84 million grant to study the effectiveness of a synthetic form of THC in treating anxiety and agitation in patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. The grant comes for the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

Esther Kelleter | EyeEm | Getty Images

It’s a potentially significant study that could help doctors better treat those with Alzheimer’s, which impacts an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In the United States, an estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. Experts project that number will triple by 2060 as the nation’s population ages.

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The Canadian clinical trial is the largest such study done on THC and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Ethan Russo, a Seattle-based neuroscientist and the director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, has previously done groundbreaking work in this area

The new trial builds upon a smaller study done by Canadian researchers.

The clinical trial in Canada is led by Dr. Krista Lanctôt and Dr. Nathan Herrmann, senior investigators at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. The study will involve 168 patients and is expected to begin this year.

In a release on the trial, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA) said the clinical trial builds on a smaller study the doctors did that demonstrated nabilone, a synthetic version of THC, “reduces agitation in persons with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease.

“The initial study was carried out with 39 individuals and will now be expanded to multiple centers across Canada in order to confirm the previous results in a larger group of people,” the release stated.

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An earlier study shows THC may reduce instances and severity of Alzheimer’s symptoms.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Lanctôt said that in the earlier study, researchers gave each patient a nabilone and a placebo in random order over the course of six weeks.

“Nabilone treatment was associated with a clinically and statistically significant reduction in agitation over six weeks, compared to the six weeks on placebo. Also, caregiver distress was significantly lower,” Lanctôt told the Globe and Mail.

The doctor said that because of the many different cannabinoids in marijuana, it’s important to isolate each and systematically study them individually and in combination. The new study, for example, will involve giving patients nabilone, a placebo, or CBD oil.

Researchers have wanted to find an effective way to treat the agitation and anxiety experienced by Alzheimer’s patients for years. According to the CCNA release, one in every five people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from feelings of anxiousness and anxiety.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that when they become overcome with these feelings, an Alzheimer’s patient may become restless and need to move around. They may also become upset in certain places or when they focus on specific details of their surroundings, leading to disruptive outbursts.

The Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health recently reviewed all the study literature on marijuana and its potential for treating symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. It found that while not yet proven, studies have found potential in using medical cannabis to treat neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with dementia, including agitation, disinhibition, irritability, aberrant motor behavior, nocturnal behavior disorders, and aberrant vocalization.

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