Having Alzheimer's disease is really, really bad. Photo: Richard King

Having Alzheimer’s disease is really, really bad. Photo: Richard King

The press has been full of horror stories about synthetic marijuana, which actually contains no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the good stuff in dope that gets you high, but acts on those same bits of the brain. The most popular “brands” are K2, Spice and Black Mamba.

Synthetic marijuana may, however, have a positive effect, so long as there’s no rat poison in it: research released at the 2018 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago in July shows that it might better the lives of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Just what is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, representing between 60 and 80 percent of cases. Dementia is the loss of cognitive abilities, principally memory, which can leave people unable to sustain conversation. Alzheimer’s is the sixth most common cause of death in the United States, with sufferers living an average of only eight years after its onset. Most people struck by it are 65 or older, but a sizeable minority are younger.

Why take synthetic marijuana?

It is, however, Alzheimer’s other symptoms – among them, agitation, depression, insomnia and weight loss – that are most challenging for caregivers and are the principal reasons for committal to a nursing home. These lead to greater apathy, strokes and death. Agitation can cause people to scream, pace, wander and be physically aggressive. These are what synthetic marijuana is good for.

“[A] whole new door for cannabinoids … for treating agitation in Alzheimer’s disease”

A study recently completed by the University of Toronto looked at 39 people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. For six weeks, they were given nabilone, a kind of synthetic THC available in capsule form. They had fewer neuropsychiatric symptoms, their appetites improved, and they experienced less pain. Caregivers reported less stress. Krista Lanctot, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology-toxicology at the University of Toronto, enthused that “[T]his opens a whole new door for cannabinoids as a group for treating agitation in Alzheimer’s disease.” In the United Kingdom and other countries, nabilone is already approved for the treatment of the nausea resulting from chemotherapy.

Cannabis use can cause foggy memory, but that’s no problem in this instance because, after all, the people have dementia. Sedation was also a problem affecting 45 percent of the patients, which again surely isn’t so awful for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Per the Alzheimer’s Society, laboratory studies have shown that cannabis can eliminate the amyloid clumps on nerve cells that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. But Professor Lanctot cautioned that “We don’t want someone going out and giving Grandma marijuana because they think it’s going to help. Synthetic marijuana only mimics the regular stuff.

And if synthetic marijuana isn’t good enough for you …

The drugs presently prescribed to treat the agitation associated with Alzheimer’s don’t work for everyone, and when they do, the effect is small and can have harmful side effects, one being the small matter of death: for every nine to 25 people who are helped, one will die.

Header image via Green Rush

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