CBD Oil for Alzheimer’s Disease: Is It a Practical Treatment?
People are increasingly looking for natural alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals in the hope of finding a way to stay healthy without having to fill their body with artificial chemicals. The last few years have seen the use of CBD overtake other forms of natural supplements, with it quickly becoming most people’s number one choice.
This has resulted in a rise in the quantity of research being done into CBD and its potential health benefits. It is generally accepted that CBD is good for the immune system and is frequently recommended as a natural daily supplement. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to its ability to treat some of the 21st century’s most problematic health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
CBD has the potential to change the way that we treat a number of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Research into the effects that CBD could have on Alzheimer’s disease is still very much ongoing, but it is thought that CBD could alter the way we manage the disease in the future.
Before we delve into exactly how CBD could help those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, let’s take a look at exactly what Alzheimer’s disease is.
What Exactly Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
People often confuse Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, using the two different terms somewhat interchangeably. Dementia is actually an umbrella term that refers to a number of different memory-related conditions. It can be caused by a range of factors resulting in a decline in a person’s cognitive function to the point that it affects their ability to carry out normal daily tasks.
The Alzheimer’s Society describes dementia as “A set of symptoms that includes memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, or language.” This can occur for a number of reasons, including damage to the brain due to a lack of oxygen, like when someone has a heart attack. Or it could be the result of a disease such as Alzheimer’s. In short: dementia is a broader term that refers to cognitive decline, while Alzheimer’s is just one possible cause of dementia.
The brain is a complex system containing billions of nerve cells that all connect and communicate with each other. In a brain with Alzheimer’s disease, there is a build-up of proteins known as beta-amyloid and the formation of tangles from a protein called tau. These likely slow down the communication between nerve cells.
When protein builds up in the brain, it forms clusters, also known as plaques and tangles, which likely results in nerve cells not receiving important chemicals and eventually dying. Chemicals within the brain that allow for signals to pass between nerve cells are drastically reduced in Alzheimer’s patients. This prevents the brain’s ability to function to its full potential.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease meaning the effects develop over time, as a result of more and more cells becoming damaged and dying. Eventually, so many cells are lost that it affects every element of patients’ daily life. This includes their motor skills, language, ability to process memories, and personality.
Scientists still don’t fully understand the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease, making it difficult to identify those most at risk and offer preventative treatment. The majority of cases occur in those over the age of 65, although there are over 40,000 people in the UK alone who have some form of early-onset dementia and are under the age of 65.
Unfortunately, despite extensive research, there isn’t too much that somebody can do to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Some things the Alzheimer’s Society does recommend that may be beneficial include:
- Leading a healthy lifestyle
- Eating a balanced diet
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Staying mentally and socially active
The early signs of Alzheimer’s disease include memory lapses and difficulty in learning new information. This is due to the hippocampus usually being the first area of the brain that the disease affects.
The hippocampus area of the brain has the largest number of naturally occurring cannabinoids. This fact has led to a number of studies looking into whether the use of CBD can have a positive impact on the hippocampus and as a result, Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s take a closer look at CBD and whether it really does have the potential to halt the effect of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Science Behind CBD Oil
CBD is just one of many naturally occurring cannabinoids found in cannabis plants and is one of the main compounds responsible for all of the health benefits we associate with cannabis. Cannabinoids are not limited to plants, as our body naturally produces a similar group of chemicals called endocannabinoids. Both of these groups of chemicals are thought to work throughout our bodies to help keep us both mentally and physically healthy and balanced.
The CBD found in cannabis plants is able to work alongside the cannabinoids in our body by interacting with CB1 and CB2 receptors and controlling everything from how we feel pain to our mood. CB2 receptors are responsible for our body’s ability to manage pain and inflammation.
CB1 receptors, on the other hand, are primarily located within the brain. Cannabinoids that bind to CB1 receptors are responsible for a wide range of functions such as influencing some of our moods and emotions, playing a role in learning and memory, and how we feel pain.
Many studies, such as a cross-sectional study by Jamie Corroon and Joy A. Philips for the Journal of Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, have found that CBD has a generally positive impact on our health. The US Food and Drug Administration has even approved CBD as a drug for treating certain forms of epilepsy.
Research as to the exact effects that CBD can have on other conditions is still ongoing; this includes its precise impact on Alzheimer’s disease. So, what exactly do we know so far about the impact CBD can have on those suffering from Alzheimer’s patients?
How Is CBD Thought to Affect Alzheimer’s Disease?
CBD is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as discussed in a variety of different studies, such as a seminal study by Nagarkatti et al. for the Journal of Future Medicinal Chemistry. This basic premise has led to a great deal of research across the world in the hope of discovering exactly how CBD works within the brain of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
The anti-inflammatory properties found in CBD theoretically reduce the damage done by the body’s inflammatory response when proteins build up.
One in vitro study on rat cells, conducted by Iuvone T et al. for the Journal of Neurochemistry, involved treating the cells with CBD prior to exposing them to beta-amyloid. The study demonstrated that CBD could have protective effects on the cells.
In 2017, a review of studies by Georgia Watt and Tim Karl for the Journal of Frontiers in Pharmacology found that some studies support the idea that CBD can promote the growth of brain cells. When CBD was given to Alzheimer’s disease rodent models, it was able to slow down the decline of memory and cognitive function.
People also often use CBD to treat anxiety and stress. These are two conditions that are commonly seen in Alzheimer’s patients, which are thought to be a result of the growing lack of understanding and connection with the patients’ surroundings.
While this has no direct impact on how Alzheimer’s disease progresses over time, trying to ease these symptoms can make life feel that little bit easier for a person who is suffering from Alzheimer’s-related anxiety.
How Does CBD Compare to Other Medication
There are a number of different treatments for a person who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. While none of them will reverse or completely stop symptoms from progressing, they can slow down the effects of the disease.
However, medication can target specific symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in order to make life feel slightly more manageable. This is similar to the way that you might take a painkiller to make the effects of a headache feel bearable.
There are three main medications that doctors tend to recommend for patients who are in the early to mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease: donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine.
All three of these drugs have slightly different effects and suit different people, but in general, they boost chemical messengers in the brain. This results in improved concentration and motivation, as well as aiding the body in processing memories. These drugs can also be useful for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s-related anxiety.
The big question, however, is whether or not CBD can be used to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the same way that prescription medication can.
Unfortunately, there is currently no definite research to say that it can.
However, this does not mean that CBD does not have the potential to do so, just that our current understanding of both Alzheimer’s disease and CBD still lacks some important puzzle pieces.
Researchers around the world are continuously working on trying and answering this question. Their hope is that CBD might be the answer to what is a growing health concern.
Final Thoughts on CBD and Alzheimer’s Disease
There is still a huge amount of research that needs doing into both Alzheimer’s disease and its causes, as well as how CBD may be able to help slow the progression and alleviate symptoms.
What research has shown, however, is that there are very few reasons to avoid taking CBD, even if just as a supplement. However, best to check with your physician before beginning to take CBD if you are on any other medications to ensure there won’t be negative interactions.
Can Marijuana Help Alzheimer's Patients?
People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s face bleak prospects. There’s no cure, and no effective treatment for the symptoms that often accompany memory loss — delusions, and even hallucinations, that can make patients agitated or aggressive.
But it’s possible marijuana might provide some relief.
A new study at McLean Hospital in Belmont will test the drug’s effect on dementia patients. And one local family with personal experience with dementia is making the study possible.
As Foxboro resident Alex Spier was grappling with dementia, he began to relive his childhood memories of the Holocaust. His son, Greg, said that before Alzheimer’s disease, Spier rarely spoke of those days.
“It was just horrible to see those sort of memories that had been suppressed his entire life coming back to him,” Greg said.
Spier’s life story is remarkable, and there are parts of it no one would want to relive.
At 14 years old, Spier was fighting the Nazis with the Dutch Resistance when he was captured. He spent the next three years in three different concentration camps.
“He survived in the camps because he [had] learned to be a watchmaker. He used to fix watches for the German soldiers in exchange for food and water,” Greg said. “And my father had always been a shrewd person. After he would repair the watches, he would spit in them. And so those watches would work for about 90 days and then they’d have to be repaired again.”
After the war, Spier decided to come to America, settling in New Bedford. With little more than his watchmaking skills, he opened a jewelry store and went on to create a huge real estate business. He devoted his later years to philanthropy.
“It was a life well lived. It just didn’t end well,” Greg said.
Spier was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in February of 2017, and he spent the next several months in rapid decline.
Alzheimer’s rarely follows a linear path, and the disease progresses differently in each patient. More recent memories may be the first to go, and the memories that remain can be processed in ways that become delusional. Some patients with dementia can find themselves effectively trapped in the past.
Spier progressed quickly from memory loss to behavioral symptoms that were more difficult to manage, becoming agitated and aggressive. The worst part was reliving memories from the Holocaust.
“It was devastating to see that come back out. He was actually in the very end talking both German and Dutch words, asking for his mother, [saying], ‘Get me out of Auschwitz.’ It was horrific,” said Greg. “My mother [found] him one day at two o’clock in the morning trying to get into his car to escape.”
Dr. Brent Forester, the chief of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital, said these kinds of psychotic reactions are broadly termed “behavioral symptoms of dementia,” and are particularly tough on family members and caregivers.
“These are the problems that are exhausting,” he said. “They drive the burden of the illness. They predict placement into long-term care settings such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities, because families basically can’t manage anymore.”
For families like the Spiers, Forester said conventional medicine has little to offer.
“The FDA to this day has never approved a single medication to treat any of the behavioral symptoms of dementia,” Forester said. “Any medicine we would use to help calm or reduce those symptoms is all off-label.”
With or without approval, families and doctors are reaching for the “off-label” options. Forester recently completed a study showing dronabinol (also known by its trade name marinol) seemed to reduce agitation in a small group of dementia patients. Dronabinol is a pharmaceutical version of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Dronabinol typically is prescribed to reduce nausea and stimulate the appetite for patients undergoing chemotherapy, or living with HIV, but it seemed to both stimulate appetite and reduce agitation in the small group Forester studied.
“There was no control group,” he said. “We were just treating people and measuring pre- and post-, and it seemed to reduce agitation.”
“What’s interesting to me,” Forester said, “is that there’s such an interest in finding something new that a lot of our [dementia] patients are being treated with drobaninol without any of this data by their physicians, because they’re just desperate for something that’s probably safe and may actually help.”
But dronabinol was not available for Spier, and no other treatments were providing any relief from his horrific delusions. The family was, however, able to get edible marijuana from a dispensary in Colorado.
“We figured, why not give it a try?” Greg said.
They were amazed by the results.
“The first night that we gave it to him was the first night that he slept through the night in, I’d say, weeks. It was remarkable,” Greg said. “I mean, it was noticeable the first time. The next day was positive … we had really quality time … we could have a discussion with him where it seemed like he could comprehend.”
Forester has heard other anecdotal stories of patients like Spier, who found relief in medical marijuana in his final months. But despite the widespread availability of medical and recreational marijuana, physicians don’t have the data they need to responsibly prescribe it.
“If I were to tell a patient of mine to go to the store, I wouldn’t know what THC to CBD ratio to recommend. I wouldn’t know which of the many products you can buy over the counter would be actually helpful or right for them,” Forester said. “There are so many very detailed questions that are completely unanswered in this area.”
Those questions remain unanswered, thanks to current federal rules about marijuana that prevent the studies from getting funded, Forester said.
“There really is no capacity I’m aware of at the federal level to get funding for this kind of research given the current federal regulations around the use of marijuana,” he said.
But there are no restrictions on how private money can be spent. Long before he got sick, Spier started a charitable foundation that also supports medical research. Greg said they “try to find those studies that aren’t necessarily able to get funding elsewhere.”
Now, the foundation is getting into marijuana research.
The Spier Family Foundation is funding a study that will explore marijuana as a treatment for the behavioral effects of dementia. Forester is designing the study, which will take place at McLean Hospital. Greg said it’s hard to imagine an outcome that would have pleased his father more.
“One of his little mottos was, ‘I want to leave the world a better place than I found it,’” Greg said.
Between the Holocaust and Alzheimer’s, life took a lot away from Spier. Even in death, he’s found a way to give back.