Can Medical Marijuana Help Alzheimer’s Patients?

By Kelly Burch 12/12/18

After nothing but marijuana edibles seemed to offer his Holocaust survivor father reprieve from Alzheimer's, Greg Spier began funding medical marijuana research through the Spier Family Foundation.

A man smokes medical Cannabis in nursing home Hadarim on July 17, 2011.Marijuana is illegal in Israel but medical use has been permitted since the early 1990s for patients pain-related illnesses
Medical marijuana could help seniors with quality of life. Rafael Ben Ari |

When Greg Spier’s father Alex was dealing with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, he was prone to experiencing delusions and irritability, behavioral problems that are common in dementia patients.

For Alex, who had survived three years in concentration camps during the Holocaust, this involved reliving some of his worst memories.

“It was the most difficult time of my life, having to see him deteriorate. My father spoke five languages, and he was speaking Dutch and German, reliving the three concentration camps he survived,” Greg Spier told ABC News, recalling how his father often pleaded, “Where is my mother?” in German.

Antipsychotic drugs, which are often used to control distress in dementia patients, did little to alleviate Alex’s symptoms, so Spier decided to try something more unconventional.

“The only thing that seemed to give him any reprieve was the marijuana,” Spier said. When he began feeding his father edibles up to four times a day, his dad was less distressed and better able to sleep.

Now Spier is helping to fund research into marijuana as a treatment for dementia symptoms through the Spier Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a successful realty and development corporation Alex founded after he emigrated to America after World War II.

Dr. Brent Forester, chief of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard’s McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, said private funding is important for marijuana research, which receives very little federal funding because cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance.

Forester said that research suggests cannabis might be beneficial for dementia patients and that it has different effects on older brains than it does for younger users.

“We really need to open up opportunities to study medical marijuana for this particular indication. I think there’s enough evidence from the synthetic THC as well as anecdotal reports that it’s certainly worth studying,” he said.

One study Forester ran found that treatment with a medical form of THC provided relief for dementia patients who were experiencing distress or psychotic symptoms. Another study found that low doses of THC can improve cognitive function in older mice, the opposite effect that it had on younger mice. In addition, animal research has shown that THC may increase the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the same way that the FDA-approved dementia drug Aricept does, and that the compound can slow the accumulation of amyloid beta plaques, which are a telltale characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Forester theorizes these protections might help reduce the distressing behaviors people with Alzheimer’s often exhibit. The Spier family hopes that by funding this research, they can help other Alzheimer’s patients and their families find more peace during the final stages of the disease.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.