This November was Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and thousands of patients, families, caregivers, and medical professionals throughout the country showed their support by walking, donating their time, sharing their stories, and more. Every show of support this month and throughout the year helps to raise awareness and promote research into preventing and curing the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia – a general term for severe memory loss or the loss of other cognitive faculties that interferes with daily life and everyday activities. The Alzheimer’s Association further clarifies that Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal aspect of the aging process, but that the disease most commonly appears in people 65 years or older. However, a small portion of Alzheimer’s sufferers, approximately 5%, experience early-onset Alzheimer’s during their 40s or 50s. The deteriorative nature of the disease can often lead to death. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States with 5 million people suffering from the disease and one in three seniors passing away with some form of dementia.
These stats are too big to ignore, and the Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month was a unique time to spread awareness and to promote potential treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are some available medications approved by the FDA to slow the onset of the disease as well as non-drug alternative treatments for the cognitive effects of dementia and methods to treat the behavioral side-effects.
Currently, the main drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s are cholinesterase inhibitors like Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne, or memantine (Namenda). These medications target symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, and cognitive problems like thinking and reasoning.
Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cell death and loss of connection between brain cells, which in turn causes a deterioration in cognitive functions. Cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine cannot prevent brain cell damage, but they do help the brain carry messages between the brain’s nerve cells by affecting chemicals that carry the messages. However, these medications do not have the ability to permanently stop the deterioration process. As the disease progresses, and more brain cells are damaged, the medications’ effects weaken.
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the patient may experience behavioral changes as well as cognitive changes. The patient may exhibit behaviors such as irritability, anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, hallucinations, outbursts, and other general signs of emotional distress. Some of these are caused by the deterioration of brain cells, and others are reactions to an increasingly confusing and unrecognizable world. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends taking a behavioral approach to behavioral changes. Many times emotional distress in an Alzheimer’s patient is rooted in environmental changes. A change of home or a parade of different caregivers would be emotionally distressing even to someone with normal cognitive abilities. For someone whose world is already unrecognizable, constant changes can be detrimental. There may also be other discomforts present that the patient may be unable to express. By keeping a keen eye on the patient’s environmental and emotional triggers, you may be able to determine the cause of discomfort and make adjustments. However, if emotional distress persists despite the application of non-drug methods, some medications are suggested such as anti-depressants, anxiolytics, and antipsychotics. The Alzheimer’s Association only recommends these options as a last resort and urges that they be used with extreme caution.
The Alzheimer’s Association suggests a number of alternative treatments. Herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and “medical foods” present the chance to enhance memory and delay the loss of cognitive functions. However, among the alternative treatments listed on the Alzheimer Association’s website, there is one missing: cannabis.
Despite the restrictions on research that come with a Schedule I classification – which deems cannabis to have no medicinal value – there have been several promising trials of cannabis in regards to Alzheimer’s. Certain trials have suggested that cannabis could potentially prevent or reverse some of the leading factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Two leading causes of dementia are a buildup of toxic plaque in the brain that results in cell death, and inflammation in the brain that damages neurons. But, when there is a reaction of cannabinoids (compounds found in cannabis) with the body’s endocannabinoid system, we see a clearing of this plaque and a reduction in inflammation, which prevents cell death and neuron damage.
Attempting to break through the highly restrictive requirements of testing a Schedule I drug, many researchers are writing grants to study the possibilities of cannabinoids in treating and preventing dementia. Eva De Lago, Ph.D. suggests that people who have abnormal forms of the protein TDP43 present in the brain have been linked to diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia. De Lago and colleagues plan to study whether or not cannabinoid drugs can protect the brain from damage relating to abnormal TDP43.
Isidro Ferrer, M.D., Ph.D. proposes to study patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which is a clinical condition in which brain function has declined, but not enough to interfere with daily life and activities. However, people with MCI have an increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Ferrer plans on studying the drug Sativex® which contains liquid forms of cannabis. He implies that this drug can reduce inflammation in the brains of MCI patients, ultimately preventing the onset of dementia.
Further studies relating to cannabis and dementia include the study of groups aged 65 years and older in treating the behavioral symptoms of dementia and research into using cannabis as an additional treatment to traditional drugs in order to placate the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, many researchers are making headway in treating the cognitive as well as behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s. A number of pharmaceutical drugs as well as alternative medicines have been employed to inhibit the degenerative process of the disease, and new research into cannabis’ effects on the endocannabinoid system show hope for the prevention and reversal of root causes of dementia. With more research and more support from the families, patients, and caregivers who spread awareness, a cure, or at least a preventative treatment, may be within sight.