For Dementia, Medical Marijuana Pill Made No Difference

Synthetic medical marijuana pill was as effective as placebo in treating dementia symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) More than 40 years after the "war on drugs" was declared, some in the medical community are rethinking marijuana. And while some evidence has suggested that it could have health benefits, marijuana isn't likely helpful in treating symptoms of one neurological disease.

A recent study from the Netherlands found that synthetic medical marijuana pills did not help dementia symptoms like aggression, pacing or wandering.

However, the authors of this study found that the drug was well-tolerated and safe overall for the patients.

"Our study results are valuable since any firm evidence of the effectiveness and safety of medical marijuana in this disease area is scarce," said study author Geke A. H. van den Elsen, MD, in a press release. "Ours is the largest study carried out so far on evaluating this drug for behavioral symptoms of dementia."

Dementia is a chronic disorder of mental processes like thinking, reasoning and memory. Many patients with dementia have psychiatric symptoms that can be distressing for patients, families and health care staff. Past research found that pain medication helped to control these symptoms.

"A drug that can treat the behavioral symptoms of dementia is much needed, as about 62 percent of dementia patients in the general community and up to 80 percent of nursing home residents experience these symptoms," Dr. van den Elsen said.

This study explored whether compounds in marijuana — which have been used to relieve pain in patients with other conditions — might also help control dementia behaviors like aggression, pacing, agitation or psychiatric symptoms.

Although this study found that dementia patients could tolerate synthetic medical marijuana pills with minimal side effects, Michelle Papka, PhD, a neuropsychologist and dementia specialist with the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute in Summit, NJ, said marijuana might affect patients’ ability to think and reason.

"The results indicated no effect, however there may be a rationale for further exploring this hypothesis," Dr. Papka told dailyRx News. "However, we also know that marijuana has a negative impact on cognition, which may limit this approach for dementia patients."

Dr. van den Elsen and team divided 50 patients into two groups. The first group received placebos (fake pills). The second group received 4.5 milligrams of THC (in the form of a pill) daily in three doses. THC is the main chemical in marijuana that affects the brain.

Both groups also received acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) for complaints of pain or behavior that indicated a patient was in pain.

Dr. van den Elsen and team found that patients’ behavioral test scores improved for both groups, but speculated that this improvement might be due to extra attention patients received from caregivers during this study. If improvements had been due to drug effects, the patients on medical marijuana would likely have shown more improvement than those on the placebo.

The lack of response in this study may be dose-related, Dr. Papka said.

"... The researchers chose this dose based on previous research showing [effectiveness] of this dose in severely impaired Alzheimer's patients," Dr. Papka said. "These researchers were also able to document that this dose is tolerable in this population."

This study was published in the May issue of the journal Neurology.

The European Regional Development Fund and the Province of Gelderland funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 13, 2015
Last Updated:
May 19, 2015