Despite some remaining resistance, cannabis use is becoming more widely accepted as both a source of medical treatments and for recreational purposes. This development is not without controversy and has spawned an unlimited variety of personal opinions.
Regardless of individual viewpoints, the new openness to cannabis is providing an opportunity for us to learn more about its potential risks and benefits in a variety of situations, including its effect on people with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or another condition.
Cannabis Science Basics
As a plant, cannabis is a source of many chemical compounds, some of which are very rare outside of the species. When thinking of cannabis in terms of medical treatments, it is important to give attention to the individual roles of each chemical, and not only the effects of cannabis when it is consumed whole, since they can be extracted and utilized apart from the plant.
The unique chemicals found in cannabis are called cannabinoids. There are potentially hundreds of cannabinoids in total, with over one hundred having already been discovered. Research efforts are still relatively new, so many of these substances are yet to be well understood. The following are a few of the most examined cannabinoids to date.
THC is easily the most famous cannabinoid, as it is responsible for most of the plant’s psychoactive effects. It also appears to have a wide range of therapeutic uses in relation to pain, cancer, glaucoma, and more.
The cannabinoid known as CBD was one of the first non-THC chemicals in cannabis that was examined for its medical use as an antiepileptic (seizure treatment). It does not cause “highness” and actually counteracts the psychoactive effects of THC.
Like CBD, this chemical does not contribute significantly to the psychoactive effects of cannabis. However, it is closely linked with sedation and may be responsible for much of the sleepiness associated with some strains.
Cannabinoids and Dementia
As it currently stands, consuming whole cannabis (via smoking, vaporizing, eating, or other means) is not advisable for people with dementia because it is difficult to verify the amount of each cannabinoid in a given sample.
Unchecked cannabis use can result in undesirable reactions like anxiety, hallucinations, and the worsening of cognitive impairments. This does not mean that cannabis has no usefulness for people with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. In fact, isolated cannabinoids may prove to be among the best available treatments, though much research is still needed to confirm such a claim.
So, what have researchers discovered about how cannabinoids interact with dementia?
Surprisingly, low doses of THC appear to be well-tolerated by dementia patients. However, as of now, there is little evidence to indicate that it is beneficial as a treatment of underlying conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia. Benefits and risks may continue to emerge as higher doses are tested.
The medical benefits of CBD are wide-ranging and may have several applications for the treatment of dementia. Early evidence suggests that CBD can play a role in sustaining brain cell health (neuroprotection) and reducing cognitive impairments in an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, it will take some time before research emerges using human participants.
Still Much to Learn
As you can see, we have a very limited understanding of how the chemicals in cannabis can affect someone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Thus far, THC is the only cannabinoid to have been studied in humans, albeit in fairly low doses.
CBD appears to have a high potential to be an effective treatment against several dementia symptoms, at least in rodents. In time, we should be able to gain a better idea of how a wider variety of cannabinoids (like CBN) could be associated with threats or benefits for dementia patients.