A cannabis-derived drug will be tested in the UK as a treatment for two lesser-known symptoms of Alzheimer's disease: aggressive behavior and agitation.
Alzheimer's disease is best known for the way it erodes a person's memory. However, roughly half of the 850,000 Alzheimer patients in the UK also experience emotional and behavioral symptoms, such as feelings of agitation and aggression. But medical marijuana could help, according to Dag Aarsland - a psychiatry professor at King's College London and lead author of a study that will test alternatives to traditional medications used to treat these symptoms.
"Current treatments for behavioral and psychiatric symptoms of dementia are very limited, and we desperately need to develop alternatives," Aarsland told The Telegraph. "Doctors sometimes prescribe anti-psychotic medications, and while these drugs can have important benefits, these need to be weighed against the risk of very serious side effects."
The drug trial is being funded by a £300,000 ($386,882) grant from Alzheimer's Research UK and will explore the effectiveness of Sativex—a cannabis-derived drug currently used to reduce muscle stiffness and spasms in MS patients—in reducing symptoms of aggression and agitation. The researchers are looking to recruit 60 participants with Alzheimer's between the ages of 55 and 90 who experience agitation and aggression. If successful, the trial will be followed up with a larger study.
Past research has already suggested that cannabis may be an effective means of keeping Alzheimer's from developing.
In places like Puerto Rico, Alzheimer's patients can now access medical marijuana to help treat symptoms like anxiety as well as sleep disorders.
While much of the research surrounding Alzheimer's drugs focuses on improving memory skills, more could be done to improve the daily lives of patients, according to David Reynolds - Chief Scientific Officer of Alzheimer's Research UK.
"While a major focus for dementia research is to develop drugs that slow or stop the progression of the physical diseases that cause dementia, what really matters is that a medicine benefits people's day-to-day lives," said Reynolds.
In a properly controlled setting Reyonlds says medical marijuana may be able to provide some of those other benefits to Alzheimer's patients. However, if medical marijuana continues to be incredibly expensive and difficult for patients to secure in the UK, this new research might not lead to any relief for many patients who need it.