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An online survey circulated among physicians who treat Parkinson's disease found that 80% of their patients had used cannabis to treat their symptoms. Furthermore, 95% of the neurologists polled said they'd been asked by their patients for a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana.

Results of the survey, undertaken in partnership with the Parkinson's Foundation and Northwestern University in Illinois, inspired a conference that was held in Denver on March 6 and 7, 2019. Some 45 experts from the United States, Canada, and Europe gathered to discuss the use and implications of medical marijuana for people with Parkinson's disease.

Survey Says: Let's Talk About Medical Cannabis

The meeting marked the first time in its 62-year history that the Parkinson's Foundation publicly discussed medical marijuana as a treatment for Parkinson's disease symptoms.

“The results of the survey were alarming,” said Dr. Beth Vernaleo, Senior Director of Research Programs at the Parkinson's Foundation. “Not only are the majority of patients using medical cannabis, but few physicians have received the training necessary in order to help guide their patients in its use.”

(Jessie Jacobson/Flickr)

The goals of the Colorado meeting, which was led by Dr. James Beck, chief scientific officer of the Parkinson's Foundation, included discussions about evidence for the use of medical cannabis in treating Parkinson's disease, developing guidance for patients and physicians, outlining an agenda for future research and addressing gaps in knowledge, many of which stem from legal and regulatory issues that continue to hamper medical cannabis research.

“While the [Parkinson's] Foundation cannot recommend the use of medical cannabis for Parkinson's at this time due to lack of conclusive evidence of efficacy, our hope is to educate the patient and medical communities so they can make informed decisions regarding its use,” Vernaleo said.

Parkinson's disease is the 14th-leading cause of death in the United States, the second-most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's disease. It affects nearly 1 million Americans and 10 million people worldwide.

Although treatments can help relieve some of the physical or mental symptoms associated with neurodegenerative diseases, there is currently no way to slow the progression of Parkinson's disease and there are no known cures.

Dr. Benzi Kluger, professor and director of the Movement Disorders Section at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, was co-chair of the Colorado conference.

“It is clear that people with Parkinson's and their families are intensely interested in the potential of marijuana and cannabinoids to help manage symptoms and other aspects of the disease,” Kluger said. “There is a critical need to analyze existing data on medical marijuana and to set priorities for future research."

Kluger noted that there is ample anecdotal evidence suggesting that cannabis may help several of Parkinson's disease's most common symptoms including pain, sleep dysfunction, appetite and weight loss, nausea and anxiety.

Medical Cannabis Treatment for Parkinson's Disease?

chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system, Parkinson's disease mainly affects the areas of the brain that are responsible for controlling bodily movement.

Although few randomized double-blind clinical trials have been carried out involving the effect of cannabis on Parkinson's disease sufferers, Moisés García Arencibia, Ph.D., professor of cell biology at the University of La Laguna (ULL) in Spain's Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, has researched how cannabis can help improve motor and non-motor skills in Parkinson's disease patients.

In a 2011 study co-authored by Garcia Arencibia, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, the researchers posited that if cannabis can slow down some of the neuron damage in the brain, it could be a promising therapy for alleviating and reducing the progression of Parkinson's disease.

Cannabis's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may help prevent neuron damage. This is particularly important for Parkinson's disease because inflammation may be responsible for causing damage to neurons in the brain that produce dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters that help regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses.

(Chuck Grimmett/Flickr)

When the brain fails to produce enough dopamine, it can result in Parkinson's disease.  

Preclinical work, including several studies funded by Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF), concur that cannabinoids may protect brain cells through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms. This prompted the MJFF to call for the reclassification of marijuana in July 2016.

Recommendations Coming

A working group in the Parkinson's Foundation intends to publish a white paper discussing the state of cannabis research regarding Parkinson's disease and will make recommendations for future study. The foundation will also develop educational materials for patients and doctors and draw up a consensus statement on the use of medical cannabis for treating Parkinson's disease.

“Lastly, the foundation plans to release a request for applications for research into the use of medical cannabis for Parkinson's later this year,” said Vernaleo, the Parkinson's Foundation director.

Now that medical cannabis is legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia, it has become clear that this is a topic the Parkinson's Foundation needs to address to help ensure the safety of the Parkinson's community.”