Studies have reported changes in the endocannabinoid system in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), playing a role in the pathophysiology of AD. Cannabinoids have been shown to have neuroprotective properties, reduce neuroinflammation, and enhance neurogenesis. Evidence suggests that the utilization of marijuana products containing both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) or CBD alone have been effective and safe for use in older people with agitation associated with dementia. A review in 2017 summarized positive findings for therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids in agitation of AD and dementia, but there was no definitive conclusion because of varying cannabinoid products. Cannabinoids were shown to be well tolerated, with few short-term side effects. This differs from first-line medications utilized for dementia behaviors, which can have unwanted side effects. Further research regarding the safety, efficacy, and variability of these products in older people is needed.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia often go through a period of significant behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD). It is estimated that up to 90% of persons with dementia (PWD) experience behavior problems at some point. BPSDs can be challenging for both unpaid family caregivers as well as paid caregivers. Family caregivers provide the bulk of care for PWD and number over 15 million. One of the most common types of BPSDs is agitation with a prevalence of up to 87%, based on a recent systematic review. Agitation can lead to impaired daily functioning, prolongation of hospitalization, reduced time to institutionalization, and is associated with higher mortality. Additionally, agitated behavior is associated with increased injury to both patients and caregivers. Based on the 2018 Alzheimer’s disease drug development pipeline report almost 70% of clinical trials related to BPSD are dedicated to agitation behavior. Finding ways to address agitation is necessary to improve overall quality of life for PWD and their caregivers. Currently, there are no medications available specifically for the treatment of BPSDs. The use of benzodiazepines, antipsychotics and mood stabilizing agents are common, but the risks and side effects often outweigh any benefits.
Several small studies have investigated the use of cannabinoids in the treatment of pathology and symptomology of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), as well as treatment of the agitation component of BPSD. A handful of these studies showed that the symptoms of BPSD were decreased with the use of cannabinoids. However, due to small sample sizes, study design, and short trial duration of these studies, the efficacy of these agents on BPSD cannot be confirmed. In addition, cannabinoids have demonstrated anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and both processes have been indicated as major contributors to the neurologic effects of AD. Some evidence exists that agitation is related to this neuroinflammatory process. This study will examine the effects of cannabinoids on the behavioral and psychological symptoms of individuals with a dementia diagnosis.
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