Canadian researchers are presenting some encouraging early data on a new way of helping to calm agitated patients with Alzheimer’s, using a man-made form of cannabis called nabilone.

About half of patients with advancing Alzheimer’s can become angry, restless and verbally or physically abusive. These behaviours are often the major reason patients are sent to hospital, or institutionalized.

Current treatments for agitation, usually anti-psychotic drugs, have only modest effects and come with a host of side effects, including a higher risk of strokes, falls and death, says Krista Lanctot, principal investigator and senior scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

Her team decided to test the synthetic cannabis in 33 patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s who had marked agitation over a 14-week trial. Presenting the data at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference on Tuesday, the Canadians report that while patients were on the nabilone:

  • Agitation improved significantly compared to placebo;
  • Overall behavioral symptoms improved, compared to placebo.

“They wouldn’t strike out, they wouldn’t get stiff. They were easier to examine and were calmer and more comfortable,” said Dr. Nathan Herrmann, a psychiatrist and scientist with Sunnybrook and the University of Toronto.

What’s more, the synthetic cannabis had a secondary effect -- it appeared to ease stress for caregivers.

“(The caregivers) were less anxious, less worried…they felt less burdened by having to look after the patient,” said Herrmann.

The study was partly funded by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada to take treatments in a new direction, given that most other experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s symptoms have failed.

Nalini Sen, a research director with the society, said it’s something that’s never been done before.

“It is very exciting and out of the box,” she said.

Researchers say they are planning a larger study with more patients, a process they say could take three more years.

The scientists admit that since nabilone is already approved for use in cancer treatment to ease nausea, some doctors will want to try it out on patients sooner. But they say they have not yet confirmed the correct dose, and a way to minimize the sedation that happened to some patients.

In the interim, marijuana is not approved in Canada or the U.S. for the treatment or management of Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

And doctors warn the study results are not a green light for raw marijuana use.

“I don’t want anybody to get the idea that this is an endorsement of the use of marijuana. This is a synthetic drug, it’s very different. We have no idea what marijuana would do for patients with dementia, said Herrmann.