Could cannabis cure dementia? Researchers with the King’s College London have announced a clinical trial to investigate a cannabis-based treatment for people living with dementia.
Funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the United Kingdom’s leading dementia research charity, the Phase II trial will look at whether Sativex, a cannabis-based mouth spray currently approved to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis, has benefit in treating agitation in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Developed by GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK, Sativex contains a 1:1 dosage of the cannabinoids THC and CBD (Sativex is licensed in Canada by Bayer). The Sativex for the Treatment of AgitatioN in Dementia (STAND) trial will recruit volunteers with Alzheimer’s disease between the ages of 55 and 90 who are living in care homes and have symptoms of agitation or aggression.
Dr. Dag Aarsland, lead researcher and Chair of Old Age Psychiatry at King’s College London, says that while people often associate Alzheimer’s with memory problems, the disease can cause agitation and aggression which impacts both the afflicted as well as those closest to them.
“Current treatments for behavioural and psychiatric symptoms of dementia are very limited, and we desperately need to develop alternatives. 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,” says Aarsland.
“One of the key questions the STAND trial will answer is whether it is practical to give someone with dementia a drug through a mouth spray when they may be exhibiting severe symptoms of agitation and aggression. We will also get some indication of whether Sativex is effective at reducing symptoms, although larger studies will be needed to get firm evidence of this,” he says.
Chief Scientific Officer for Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dr. David Reynolds, says that with no new dementia treatments having been found over the past 15 years, it’s important to test a wide range of approaches.
“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,” says Reynolds.
“The STAND trial opens the door to a treatment that may help to alleviate an extremely challenging set of symptoms, and Alzheimer’s Research UK is extremely grateful to our supporters for making this important work possible,” he says.
Last year, researchers at King’s College London completed a study which found that the CBD cannabidiol could reduce the abnormal brain activity associated with psychosis. The researchers found that unlike THC, which has been determined as a risk factor for psychosis and other conditions such as schizophrenia, CBD is safe and seems to be well tolerated by people with psychosis.
The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada takes a cautious approach, noting that there have been several studies and even conducting their own. So far, they say, the jury is out.
“There have been a limited number of studies that look at cannabinoids as a treatment specifically for people with Alzheimer’s disease,” wrote Dr. Krista Lanctôt, PhD, who is a senior scientist with the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Toronto. “Further study is important because cannabinoids may not have the same effect on a brain with Alzheimer’s disease as they do on a healthy brain. For example, while cannabinoids can have calming effects when used in the general population, they may have the opposite effect in people with Alzheimer’s disease.”