Can medical marijuana reduce symptoms of dementia or even halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? Some research findings suggest that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can relieve behavioral and psychological symptoms and protect the brain from further neurological damage. It can also stimulate appetite, alleviate pain, and generally improve quality of life. A pilot study in 2016 with 11 patients found that medical cannabis oil reduced agitation and aggression, delusions, irritability, apathy, sleep, and caregiver distress.[1]

Studies at the Salk Institute in 2016 found preliminary evidence that THC and other compounds in marijuana can protect nerve cells in the brain from inflammation and reduce amyloid beta protein levels.[2] High levels of amyloid beta proteins form damaging plaque deposits within the brain and are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Although the findings are encouraging, clinical trials may be years away.

Medical marijuana is available to patients in many states, including Florida, but research on its effectiveness has been hampered due to federal regulations and the fact that the federal government classifies marijuana as an illegal Schedule 1 substance, the highest level of drug restriction. American researchers must go through a lengthy application process and can only obtain marijuana in limited supplies produced by the government. These challenges and barriers have impeded high quality research on cannabis and its related compounds, making treatment decisions more difficult.

In Florida, Alzheimer’s disease is a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, although the process required for eligibility and the cost of the drug can make it unaffordable for many patients who could potentially benefit. Medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Moreover, medical marijuana cannot legally be prescribed by a physician. Doctors and other healthcare professionals can only recommend it or provide written certifications.

Caregivers considering medical marijuana as part of the treatment plan for a patient with Alzheimer’s disease should discuss the pros and cons with the patient’s physician, and carefully monitor outcomes.