Neurodegenerative diseases affect a significant portion of the population and are one of the main causes of death in industrialized countries. Dementia is one of those diseases. Some estimates indicate that more than 7 million people aged 65 or older had dementia in the US in 2020.
In recent years, medical cannabis has captured the attention of both the scientific community and patients suffering from this condition as more and more evidence shows that cannabinoids present in the marijuana plant can be a very effective resource to treat its related symptoms. Given that dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases were included in the list of qualifying conditions for the Texas Compassionate Use Program (TCUP) in 2019, thousands of Texan patients can have legal access and benefit from including medical marijuana in their course of treatment.
What is dementia? How does cannabis affect the brain? Why treat dementia symptoms with medical cannabis? We’ll tell you all about it and more!
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a condition characterized by the decline of 2 or more brain functions like memory, language, judgment, problem solving and other thinking abilities to the point where it interferes with daily functioning. This condition is caused by damage to brain cells affecting their ability to communicate with each other, therefore provoking alterations in the individual’s behavior, feelings and cognitive function.
Although many different types of dementia exist, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most prevalent type and accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases.
How Does Medical Cannabis Affect the Brain?
Neuroinflammation is a common element among neurodegenerative diseases and has been identified as one of the key causes of progressive neurodegeneration. Cannabinoids THC and CBD present in the marijuana plant have neuroprotective properties, enhance neurogenesis and reduce inflammation. In particular, CBD’s neuroprotective potential can be the key to stop neurodegenerative progression, which no conventional treatment does so far. Although more research is necessary, recent studies suggest that medical cannabis has an enormous potential for helping patients dealing with diseases affecting the brain.
If you are wondering how medical cannabis connects with the brain, the answer lies within the body’s endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is in charge of regulating essential bodily functions such as memory and learning, inflammatory and immune responses, temperature control, eating, sleeping, emotional processing and pain. Although the receptors of this system can be found all over the body, they are mainly concentrated in the brain.
When brain cells suffer damage or misfire, the communication between these receptors are negatively impacted and in turn this translates into an imbalance that causes disruption of one or more bodily functions. Dr. Matthew Brimberry, Medical Director of Texas Cannabis Clinic explained it best in a conversation with the Central Texas Lewy Body Dementia support group: “when that happens […] we can supplement our body’s own endocannabinoid system with plant based cannabinoids to help bringing us back into balance.”
Medical cannabis affects the brain in two essential ways: it helps reduce inflammation and regulate blood flow which plays a key role in neuroprotection and neurogenesis, and it improves communication between brain cells by interacting with the endocannabinoid’s system receptors, helping bring balance back when the endocannabinoid system misfires or presents damaged cells.
Medical Cannabis: A New Approach to How Dementia is Treated
Dementia symptoms go beyond an impaired cognitive function (difficulty communicating, planning and organizing or solving problems, impaired visual and spatial abilities and memory loss). Patients suffering from different types of dementia also experience behavioral and mood-related symptoms such as agitation, aggression, wandering, hallucinations and diverse mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
The traditional course of treatment of dementia includes the use of cholinergic medicines to increase neurotransmission but don’t address the inflammatory process. The addition of cannabinoids can complement this core strategy and has been shown to be effective. In later stages of dementia symptoms of agitation can be difficult to treat and the care team are faced with finding a medicine to control these symptoms. Common medications used to control these symptoms are known as antipsychotics and come with their own inherent risks of INCREASED mortality in the dementia population. Cannabis should be considered as a safer alternative and there are early studies showing it’s effectiveness. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.
The marijuana plant’s cannabinoids’ ability to interact with the endocannabinoid system’s receptors gives them unparalleled value when treating dementia symptoms. When cannabinoids interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors they impact the way cells communicate with each other by altering the release of neurochemicals in the brain which can help regulate key functions such as pain, appetite or mood. Empirical evidence shows that medical cannabis is effective when treating anxiety, depression, agitation, aggression, sleep disturbances and diverse mood disorders in patients with dementia, PTSD and autism who experience some of these common symptoms.
Cannabinoids are effective, well tolerated and present few short-term side effects which in many cases can be minimized or eliminated by adjusting the dose. This explains why cannabis is not only a new approach to how dementia is treated but also a better treatment alternative to help manage behavioral symptoms in patients living with that condition. When asked about this subject, Dr Brimberry affirmed “I like to define the use of medical cannabis as utilizing medical cannabis to gleam the benefits of this plant at dosages that are below the threshold of unintended side effects.”
Boots On The Ground: How To Be An Advocate For a Loved One
Dementia is a disease that takes a toll not only on the patients but on their caregivers as well. Because of its impact on the patient’s cognitive function, as the disease progresses the role of the caregiver becomes more and more essential to ensure that the doctors have all the information available to assess the true condition of the patient and that the patient has a voice and their best interest is always at the forefront of any medical decision that is made.
How to be an advocate? By being closely involved in your loved one’s care, you have essential information that can be used to advocate for them, so they get the best care possible. You are the boots on the ground, you know them best and have the ability to notice any change, any new symptom or side effect. Share these critical pieces of information with their medical team, convey your observations about the patient’s behavior, vulnerabilities and needs, and ask questions so that any necessary changes to the treatment can occur.
This is particularly key when you notice adverse effects of a course of treatment implemented by the medical team, either because of the occurrence of intolerable side effects or the lack of action addressing a particular symptom which can negatively impact the quality of life of the patient. As Dr Brimberry expressed in his conversation with the Central Texas Lewy Body Dementia support group: “It’s so important that [caregivers] continue to advocate for your loved ones when you see something go sideways and have the courage to say ‘Stop! Let’s try something else’ and give that feedback (…) [so that the doctors] hear you and change the plan of care to parallel the goals and get better outcomes.”
You can also advocate for your loved one by getting involved with and gathering support for advocacy groups where you can find a community of people sharing similar challenges and goals, and put resources together to push for caregiver support and education and to further support research for treatment and a cure for this challenging disease.
So there you have it! Medical cannabis is an excellent alternative to antipsychotics traditionally used to treat dementia symptoms. It is well tolerated and has few short-term side effects, which gives medical marijuana a much better safety profile than that of antipsychotics with their riskier side effects.
Given that dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases are qualified conditions in Texas, patients in the Lone Star state can have access to medical cannabis through the Texas Compassionate Use Program (TCUP) by obtaining a prescription that can be filled at any of the authorized dispensaries in Texas.
Still have questions about how medical cannabis can help in the treatment of your loved one who suffers from dementia? Contact us! We are here to help.