Dementia is not a single specific condition. Instead, it is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of symptoms such as memory loss and a decline in problem-solving skills. Such changes are often minor at the beginning, but over time they get so severe that the afflicted individual struggles to cope with everyday life. In most cases, a person with dementia will experience changes in behavior or mood.
The primary cause of dementia is brain cell damage. The brain cells lose their ability to communicate with one another and the result is affected feelings, behavior, and a disruption in normal thought patterns.
The brain has several distinct regions, and each one is responsible for a variety of functions such as movement, judgment, and memory. Once the cells in a section of the brain are damaged, that area of the brain can’t conduct its normal functions.
Different forms of dementia are associated with specific regions of the brain. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease patients have excessive levels of proteins both inside and outside of their brain cells, making it difficult for brain cells to remain healthy and continue communicating properly. As a result, memory loss is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
While the New York Times suggested that five million Americans were living with dementia in 2016, the Alzheimer’s Association claims that 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s specifically. Up to one-third of seniors die with a form of dementia, affecting not only the patient suffering from the disease, but their loved ones as well. Early and accurate diagnosis of all types of dementia could save almost $8 trillion in medical and care costs.
Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating condition and it is heartbreaking to see a loved one afflicted. This is why CBD is being used by some families to help to manage symptoms of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The major questions is: does it really work? We will look at the research later in this article, but first, let’s take a look at what happens when you have dementia.
Types of Dementia & Symptoms
Alzheimer’s is by far the most common form of the condition but there are several types including:
- Huntington’s Disease
- Frontotemporal Dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
- Parkinson’s (or Lewy Body) Dementia
- Vascular Dementia
- Korsakoff Syndrome
- Mixed Dementia
The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that there are ten signs of the condition:
- Significant memory loss that disrupts your daily life.
- Issues with problem-solving or planning.
- Difficulties completing familiar tasks.
- Confusion regarding place or time.
- Problems understanding spatial relationships and visual images.
- Development of problems with the spoken or written word.
- Losing the ability to retrace one’s steps and misplacing things.
- Reduced judgment. For instance, giving large amounts of money to scammers.
- Social withdrawal.
- Major changes in personality and mood.
Diagnosis, Outlook, & Traditional Treatments for Dementia
At present, there is no standardized test for dementia. Physicians diagnose the different forms based on a physical examination, lab tests, reports of a patient’s issues with day-to-day function, and their medical history. Common risk factors such as genetics and age can’t be changed, but modifable risk factors like exercise and diet could reduce the likelihood of developing dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease follows a number of set stages and scores. A score of 0 is normal.
- Mild cognitive impairment – 0.5
- Mild dementia – 1
- Moderate dementia – 2
- Severe dementia – 3
Individuals with the condition will progress through the stages at different speeds and will experience different symptoms.
Early diagnosis enables patients and their families to make plans for care and also offers the opportunity to participate in clinical trials. Treatment of the condition will depend on its cause. For example, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s and pharmaceutical drugs do little to even slow down the progression. Whereas, managing blood pressure and preventing strokes would be useful in someone with a diagnosis of vascular dementia.
There is prescription medication available that offers temporary relief of symptoms, but nothing to reverse disease progression on a long-term basis. However, proponents of CBD, a non-intoxicating compound in marijuana, claim it is capable of slowing down the symptoms of dementia, especially in Alzheimer’s patients.
Could CBD Oil Help Dementia Patients… And Is It Safe?
The marijuana plant has been used to help treat a variety of medical conditions for thousands of years. It interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) and cannabinoid receptors that are located throughout the body. Scientists now believe that the ECS evolved in primitive animals around 600 million years ago! The CB1 receptor is associated with the nervous system and brain, and it is this receptor’s relationship with marijuana that could hold the key to alleviating dementia symptoms.
According to Dr. Dustin Sulak, small doses of cannabinoids such as CBD give the body a signal to create more endocannabinoids and build more receptors. A greater number of receptors increase your sensitivity to cannabinoids which is why it usually takes several uses before you feel an effect.
The hippocampus contains the CB1 receptor and is a part of the brain vulnerable to the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The CB2 receptor is found in the microglia, another part of the brain believed to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
A 2017 WHO report* found that CBD is not a compound with high dependence or abuse potential. CBD doesn’t provide an intoxicating high that is found with use of THC containing cannabis, and actually diminishes the psychoactive effect of THC. As a result, it is safe for the elderly as well as children.
Studies on the Impact of CBD on Dementia
A study* led by Professor David Schubert of the Salk Institute in California, published in the Journal of Neurochemistry in 2017, found that CBD and THC could help remove dangerous, dementia-causing proteins from the brain. In the study, the research team used a small dose of synthetically produced cannabinoids. The result was the removal of a toxic plaque associated with dementia.
Known as amyloid beta, this protein creates a dangerous plaque in the brain which destroys brain cells.
It is believed that amyloid beta accumulates in the walls of the brain cells before Alzheimer’s symptoms become apparent. Schubert spoke of his frustration with the existing marijuana laws. He said: “It’s blatantly obvious that this plant should be studied in greater detail.”
Another study*, led by Andreas Zimmer of the University of Bonn, looked at weed’s potential to improve the memory and learning capabilities of older mice. It was published in Nature Medicine in 2017 and involved the use of THC. The team found that small doses improved the learning skills and memory of the mice. One wonders if CBD will have a similar effect.
Back in 2004, a study* by Iuvone et al, published in the Journal of Neurochemistry, found that cannabidiol offered a neuroprotective effect. The team looked at the effects of CBD on beta-amyloid peptide-induced toxicity in cultured rat cells. When the cells were exposed to beta-amyloid peptide, a significant reduction in cell survival was recorded. When the cells were treated with CBD, cell survival was “significantly elevated.”
Final Thoughts on CBD and Dementia
For many patients with dementia, it can be a long and lonely road ahead. The symptoms of dementia slowly but surely lead to deleterious effects on memory and mood and make it difficult to perform daily tasks. Recent research into the impact of CBD on the symptoms of dementia conditions such as Alzheimer’s offer a sliver of hope.
While the psychoactive compound, THC, could potentially remove amyloid clumps in the brain – which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s – CBD may potentially have a similar effect and definitely aids in the antioxidant process that reverses signs of aging in all organs of the body.
However, most studies so far have been performed on rodents and have featured an isolated marijuana compound. If one component doesn’t positively impact dementia symptoms or mitigate the risk of developing the condition, it doesn’t mean that marijuana as a whole is ineffective.
One thing we know is that research needs to continue so we can see if these promising beginnings turn into something more concrete. Sadly, major groups such as the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK don’t fund treatment, and this oversight is holding back progress in identifying protocols for using CBD in the treatment of dementia.