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Is marijuana helpful for Parkinson’s?

Friday July 05, 2013

Marijuana is used for medical purposed including beneficial effects on pain, chemotherapy related anorexia and nausea, anxiety and muscle spasm. Its role in brain disease is now being explored. For instance, researchers in Alzheimer’s disease are studying cannabinoids, the active chemicals found in marijuana, given that these chemicals have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties and immunosuppressive effects in the laboratory. Man

Interest in marijuana has spread to the Parkinson’s community. Unfortunately, research on the true benefit from marijuana or its cannabinoid isolates is limited. Although limited information and guidance is available, the following information is some of what is known about marijuana:

  • Brain receptors exist for cannabinoids. Central cannabinoid receptors are located in the basal ganglia suggesting a role in modulating nerve activity that controls movement.
  • Cannabinoids may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties both thought to be helpful for brain cell health.
  • Cannabinoids may have an anti-anxiety and euphoric  effects. Since stress reduces tremor, pain and dystonic spasm, blocking the physiologic response to stress can reduce these symptoms.

Be aware of the potential negative effects of marijuana and its chemical isolates:

  • No controlled studies are available that confirm the benefits of marijuana in movement disorders. In a study of Parkinson’s and dyskinesia, cannabinoids had no effect (Neurology 2005).
  • Marijuana does impair function. Specific concerns already impacted in people with Parkinson’s disease include driving. Slowed motor reflexes and thinking response can impair driving. Driving is noted to be impaired with occasional smokers (Clin Chem 2013). The combined effect of Parkinson’s, medications and cannabinoids is not known.
  • Marijuana can worsen existing symptoms. For example, apathy and depression are both a significant concern in Parkinson’s disease and these problems can worsen with marijuana use.
  • Psychosis can be caused by Parkinson’s medicines and can also be caused by marijuana. The combined risk is unknown.
  • Problems with cognition and thinking functions can occur with Parkinson’s and/or be caused by medicines to treat Parkinson’s. Marijuana use also negatively affects attention, memory, emotional processing and depression.
  • Apathy can lead to lifestyle changes or habits less helpful for brain health such as lower activity and exercise levels, poorer eating habits and social withdrawal.
  •  Stress certainly does worsen symptoms of these conditions. yet there are many other anti-stress techniques such as meditation, guided imagery, exercise and yoga that can reduce stress and enhance general health.
  • Finally, medical marijuana is legal in a few states but still is an unregulated drug with associated risks including contamination and impurities.

Like any therapy, pros and cons exist. Traditional medical therapies do not always adequately treat symptoms (for example, muscle pain and spasm causing continuing suffering) leading individuals to seek alternative therapies. A thoughtful discussion with your healthcare provider is important before considering any treatment.

Monique L. Giroux, MDMonique L. Giroux, MD
Guest Blogger, Former Medical Director of NWPF

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