Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects around 1 million people in the US, more than the number of people diagnosed with MS, muscular dystrophy, and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined. To date no cure has been found for this disease, which primarily affects those over the age of 55, as its underlying causes are not yet fully understood. With approximately 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year, PD carries a significant economic burden with a current financial impact of $52 billion per year, a number that is expected to grow to $79 billion by 2037 in the United States alone. Classified as a common chronic neurodegenerative disorder PD is characterized by motor dysfunction including bradykinesia (slowness of movement), rigidity, tremor, dyskinesia (involuntary muscle movements), and dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions). It is caused by the degeneration of dopaminergic cells in the substantia nigra, a structure in the midbrain, which is responsible for the production of dopamine. A decrease in dopamine levels causes abnormal brain activity, which leads to the symptoms of PD.
As of now, 37 states have legalized medical cannabis. With this increased access to cannabis, patients and providers alike are starting to embrace this plant as a therapeutic option. Though scientists and medical professionals remain split on the efficacy of medical cannabis as a treatment for diseases such as PD, new studies showing positive results continue to be published. Studies conducted on the use of medical cannabis in PD have shown promising results, demonstrating medical cannabis to be a feasible treatment option. The Dent Neurologic Institute has also done its own retrospective study on the effects of medical cannabis on Parkinson’s disease with promising results.
The Dent Neurologic Institute was originally founded by neurologist Dr. William R. Kinkel to further research Parkinson’s disease in 1963, made possible, by a grant given by Harry M. Dent, the founder of the Durez Company, who was diagnosed with PD and wanted to support research into the ailment. Though it started small, the Dent Neurologic Institute is now among the largest neurological practices in the nation. Mr. Dent’s generous grant and Dr. Kinkel’s lifelong commitment to helping individuals with neurological issues such as Parkinson’s laid the foundation for the DENT, which continues to research new therapies such as medical cannabis for the treatment of neurological disorders.
As with most medical cannabis research, the overall number of studies evaluating its effects on Parkinson’s patients remains relatively low. This is due in large part to cannabis’ classification as a schedule 1 controlled substance under US federal law. However, the studies that have been completed thus far show promising results. A randomized, double-blind, crossover trial found a 22.2% reduction in total on-period dyskinesia after receiving a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC, one of the two major cannabinoids found in cannabis. Another study of PD patients receiving CBD, the other major cannabinoid, found significant improvement in sleep, hallucinations/illusions, and delusions. A survey assessing the impact of MC on 47 PD patients found overall symptomatic improvement in 82% of patients, including improvement in tremors, muscle stiffness (rigidity), pain, insomnia, and/or mood. An additional survey-based study including nine PD patients who used cannabis found patient-reported improvements in mood, sleep, motor symptoms, and quality of life.
A study conducted at the Dent, included patients 18 or older who carried a diagnosis of PD due to an unknown cause with a secondary complicating condition per initial NYS medical cannabis regulations, and were treated with medical cannabis at the study site. A total of 69 patients were included in the study and of those 69 patients, 87% (n=60) observed improvement in at least one PD symptom after initiation of medical cannabis therapy. Pain (61%), spasticity (58%), and tremor (48%) were the three symptoms that demonstrated the most improvement with medical cannabis treatment. Furthermore, over 50% of patients utilizing opioid pain medications were able to reduce their dose or discontinue treatment while on medical cannabis. Though adverse events were noted in 46% (n=32) of patients (fatigue 22%, confusion 12%, dizziness 9% being the most commonly reported), only 2 people discontinued treatment due to (fatigue and confusion) adverse events. Suggesting these, side effects are largely tolerable.
The aforementioned studies along with Dent’s study support the use of medical cannabis as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for PD as well as the need for additional research. Though medical cannabis therapy has shown promising signs as a therapeutic alternative, principal clinical elements such as optimal dosing and route of administration remain in question. As with most medical cannabis treatments, there is a need for large, randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trials to fully understand the efficacy and long-term effects of medical cannabis on PD before it can be officially validated as a treatment option.