Medical Marijuana and Alzheimer's

What Every Caregiver Should Know

If you or someone you love has Alzheimer's, by now you may have heard a few murmurs about the possible benefits of medical marijuana. In recent years, researchers have been experimenting with low doses of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and other active compounds in marijuana, studying their effects on the neurological changes thought to lead to Alzheimer's disease. Scientists are curious about both THC's potential to protect the brain from degeneration and the compound's ability to ease the symptoms of Alzheimer's and dementia.

One study, published in August 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, gained widespread attention for showing low-dose THC to be effective in reducing the production of the amyloid beta plaques that most experts believe ultimately cause Alzheimer's. The results from in vitro studies showed that THC boosts the function of mitochondria, the "energy factories" of cells, suggesting THC might aid brain function.

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"Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer's disease," said lead researcher Chuanhai Cao, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida's Byrd Alzheimer's Institute. "Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future."

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In previous research, conducted at the Scripps Research Institute, scientists zeroed in on the mechanism by which THC seems to protect against degenerative processes in the brain. The study, published in Molecular Pharmaceutics, found that THC triggers acetylcholinesterase, a natural enzyme that prevents the formation of protein deposits.

Several teams of researchers have been testing the effects of THC and another cannabis compound, CBD (cannabidiol), in mice. CBD is the focus of much recent research because it does not cause the "high" associated with THC.

Research from Barcelona, Spain, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease in early 2015, found that a combination of THC and CBD helped prevent degenerative brain symptoms in mice that had been genetically induced to develop Alzheimer's. In Australia, researchers found that mice with Alzheimer's who were treated with CBD alone improved their memory and regained their ability to recognize objects.

But don't get too excited yet. While what we know so far is very encouraging, it's extremely preliminary, experts say. Unfortunately, just because something works in cell cultures and mice does not mean it will work in humans. We need carefully controlled clinical trials to study how THC and CBD work in the human brain and, more important, whether they're safe.

That doesn't mean that people with Alzheimer's and dementia and their caregivers aren't experimenting with using marijuana, though. Look around caregiver forums, such as's Alzheimer's & Dementia Care group and you'll find a great deal of curiosity -- and, yes, enthusiasm -- from those with Alzheimer's and their family members about experimenting with medical marijuana.

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While much of the research has focused on the protective benefits of cannabis compounds (i.e., their potential to prevent disease), those living with Alzheimer's are most focused on the potential of marijuana to relieve day-to-day symptoms such as agitation and volatility. "The relaxation it brings is very beneficial," said one caregiver who has tried medical marijuana with her mother.

Then there's the paranoia and anxiety that plague many people with Alzheimer's, which can be overwhelming to those with the disease and taxing for caregivers. Medical marijuana, caregivers say, helps ease their loved ones' fear and panic and helps them relax. "It worked quite well to chill her out and relieve her anxiety and paranoia," reported one caregiver whose mother had tried a liquid marijuana extract.

On the question of long-term health risks, caregivers are less worried about that issue, for obvious reasons. "What would be the harm?" said one caregiver, pointing out that any health effects from marijuana would take a long time to develop, probably not a big concern for someone who already has a terminal disease.

None of this is to suggest that you should light up a joint with your loved one, though. "This research is no excuse to smoke marijuana to prevent AD," said Cao, the neuroscience researcher at the University of South Florida. It's still early days, Cao and other researchers say, and a lot more work needs to be done to test for safety and make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.

It's also important to realize that the doses researchers are experimenting with are extremely low -- nowhere near the amount you get when you smoke marijuana. And they're using carefully engineered extracts, many of which are not available in the U.S.

If you're interested in learning more about marijuana compounds and Alzheimer's, talk to a doctor and work with a reputable legal medical marijuana clinic. The American Academy of Neurology is carefully following medical marijuana research, but stated in a recent position paper that "further research is needed to determine the benefits and safety of such products."

5 months ago, said...

My mother had lost the ability to walk. She even had extreme difficulty just standing. I gave her some medical marijuana chocolates. After just a few doses, she started walking again. After several days, she was walking all over the place. In under a week she had regressed months. I can't recommend this enough.

12 months ago, said...

i care for my dad who is 80 years old and pretty far gone. he mostly just wanders around the house and yard, touching everything, agitated, pretty non-communicative, aggressive.....i could go on and on. he is no fun. i have found that a carefully dosed cannabis cookie in the afternoon makes his evening much more relaxed and enjoyable. he smiles, laughs, tells stories......nothing makes any sense, but the twinkle in his eye is undeniable. he feels better in his head. when he goes away for a few days of respite the folks at the care-home dose him up on ativan or xanax, or worse stuff whose names i cannot recall, just to keep him docile. when i get him home after just five days away, he is in a near coma for five days following......just trying to get the meds out of his system. i understand. i know first hand how bad he can be. what i cannot understand is why cannabis is still frowned upon medically......even socially, but that is another soapbox. my vote is to just use it. hey, and it does not have to be "medical marijuana" either, just ask around to buy some, then go online and learn how to make budder and cook with it. if you are on this site, i am guessing everyone in your home will be happy you did! if they served "cookies" and milk at afternoon tea in nursing and care facilities....oh, my goodness, how much happier everyone would be.

over 1 year ago, said...

We are on week 3 with this med. I see a difference. My dad is awake more during the day. He is trying to talk more and has some more immediate understanding of what we are saying. He is more agitated at times, back to the way he was before we added daytime anxiety meds(we cut that down while trying this). He is smiling and laughing more.

over 1 year ago, said...

specially for agitation , it seems relieve some of the symptoms and improves the quality of life.

over 1 year ago, said...

As I remember from past experience....the effects of relaxation from marijuana were quite noticeable I would be all for it for Alzheimer's people or anyone that would benefit from the effects. Ask Willie Nelson....he will tell you that God put that here naturally so who is the Government to go against GOD.

over 1 year ago, said...

I for one am very happy people are finally looking at medical use for marajuna. Working with some of the best extreme sports people in the world since the 70's. Many have used it instead of prescription medicines. When injured. Most astounding though was the ADHD kids I worked with. When they became young adults I used it instead of the drugs. As children I'd use half cup of strong coffee or for young children Mountain Dew. The argument authorities is the misuse of it. We have more people misusing prescription meds than any street drug. Why we have to go hand carry anything we need now for pain. Riddlin was the hot drug back in the 80's & 90's. Now it's the pain meds. I for one have been on the route now that I'm old going through extensive back reconstruction from injury. I know it has far worse side effects then using marajuna I did in my youth. So hats off to research to reeducate people misunderstanding of it. Personally also working with thousand of kids who grew up Alcoholic before they are of legal age. Where the ones who choose marajuna could walk away and not get addicted. Drinking and depression Dont work either. It addressing some other common use for marajuna. Yes as an athlete I choose life without substance. But when I've need it when I was younger it sure was far better that all I'm on now. The anxiety I go through as a care giver could probably be addressed if I had the time to really focus on my needs. Other than being bolted together I haven't even had a women check up in yrs. blessings to you all with a open mind to study this.

over 1 year ago, said...

IF it is used correctly and actually helps the patient, yes. But I would want to see more studies done first. It is encouraging to know that many different things are being looked at for help with the disease. The calming effects alone are worth a look into using this for these patients. Thank you for posting this

over 1 year ago, said...

This is very useful information. Perhaps for someone who is in intermediate late stage of AD, the use us THC/CBD in low dosage will help with anxiety, paranoia, sleeplessness, agitation and instead have the feeling of calm and laid back. This will help me, a caregiver, and will help tremendously my husband. I very much would like to get a medical marijuana card for him so I try but my state don't have a dispensary or even a source for the oil! I am a marijuana use advocate and love to have marijuana use become legal nationally. It can only do us all good. thank you for this article.