Aggression and other disruptive behaviours linked to Alzheimer’s disease are notoriously difficult to treat, sometimes leading to patients being restrained or medically sedated, but some doctors are now investigating the potential for success with a new strategy: CBD oil.

Family members of patients with dementia say CBD oil, short for Cannabidiol and derived from the cannabis plant, can make a world of difference.

David Scholey’s yelling used to echo through the hallways of his Ontario long term care facility in Fenelon Falls, Ont. Ever since he tried CBD oil two months ago, the 76-year-old’s dementia-related disruptions have declined.

“Within a couple of days you could tell it was working because of the fact that he was a lot quieter, he was a lot calmer,” said Catherine Mantle, a registered nurse and care director at Fenelon Court.

David’s brother, William Scholey also noticed a major improvement. “I think it is wonderful for not only David but for people and family just to see that he is not... as anxious and frustrated,” he said.

William Scholey says “the problem” with sedatives for his brother was that they made it more difficult for David to communicate simple things like which movies he wants to watch.

“He’s a movie buff and he is constantly looking for new titles. He likes the old war and cowboy movies and stuff and David has a great memory in that regard,” Scholey said.

Scholey joked that his brother is now a “pothead,” but also said that the therapy doesn’t appear be making David “high.” That’s likely because CBD is not the chemical in cannabis that makes people feel euphoric. The “high” comes mainly from Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

‘Godsend for caregivers’

Betty Wigle’s family has also turned to CBD oil. Her son, James Tripp, says the drug shifted his 92-year-old mother’s mood from anxious and depressed to cheerful.

As her caregiver, Tripp says the CBD therapy has been a godsend.

“I was so worn out from looking after her. It is hard enough looking after seniors but an Alzheimer's patient is literally a 24/7 job. I was sleeping two hours a day. I was exhausted dealing with my own health issues,” he said.

“When we got her on the (CBD) therapy it solved so many of the volatility issues,” Tripp added.

‘No miracle cures’

Dr. Rhonda Collins, the Chief Medical Officer of Revera, is part of what’s called an open label study at more than 20 Ontario long term care facilities, conducted in partnership with Canopy Growth. Some 500 seniors some with dementia will be assessed before and after starting medically prescribed CBD oil for pain, anxiety, insomnia and the often-disruptive behaviours of dementia. Preliminary data could be available in about six months.

Dr. Collins says there is little research so far on whether CBD oil is a safe and effective treatment for elderly patients, and it’s unclear how it could react with medications. But she there is a definite need for “new tools” to handle things disruptive behaviours.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard several reports of cannabis being effective for managing a wide variety of symptoms including these behaviours of dementia including these psychological symptoms,” she said. “However, there are not enough of them currently to say yes we need to run with this.”

“One of the things I like to caution people about is that there is no miracle cure,” she added.

Dr. Collins points out that all medications come with the risk of potential side effects.

“And what works for me might not necessarily work for you because we are all different,” she added. “We all have different chemistries. We have different genetics.”

“I don’t want everybody to get on the cannabis bandwagon because we have a few scattered reports which is why this study is so important,” she said.