For scientists and physicians, medical marijuana is both fascinating and frustrating: While many see the plant's potential, there's little clinical research to document the efficacy of MMJ.
Although medical marijuana has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that protect brain cells, studies of the plant's potential in easing the muscle and tremor afflictions of Parkinson's have registered mixed results — and as with most diseases, the level of cannabis research around Parkinson's is still extremely limited. Physicians who treat Parkinson's, however, note that patients are often using cannabis for self-medication whether a doctor recommends it or not, forcing the health-care community to seriously consider medical marijuana despite the plant's federally illegal status.
The Parkinson's Foundation, an organization that's been dedicated to fighting the disease for over six decades, has recently stepped up its involvement with cannabis education and held its first conference on the subject in Denver on March 6 and 7. The conference is closed to the general public, but it marks a new step in studying solutions for the country's second-most-common neuro-degenerative disease, right behind Alzheimer’s.
Westword checked in with Dr. James Beck, chief scientific officer for the Parkinson's Foundation, to learn more about what the organization hopes to gain from its time in Denver, as well as what kind of studies need to be done going forward so that medical professionals can properly evaluate the effects of cannabis on Parkinson's.
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Westword: Why choose Denver for the foundation’s first conference about medical marijuana?
Dr. James Beck: We needed a location that is centrally located to ensure that experts from academia, clinics, industry, government and the Parkinson's disease (PD) community can easily get to our first-ever medical marijuana and PD conference.
Being that the conference is invite-only, is there any way that patients or those interested in medical marijuana and Parkinson's disease can learn more after the conference?
In addition to Parkinson’s specialists, seven Parkinson’s advocates living with PD will participate in the conference to provide their perspective. The foundation will publish more information and research recommendations for marijuana and PD following the conference this summer on our website, at Parkinson.org/marijuana.
Is medical marijuana a popular form of self-medication for Parkinson's disease? If so, why?
In a study we did with Northwestern University, 95 percent of neurologists have been asked to recommend medical marijuana. While it’s never supposed to be used as a substitute to medication, marijuana is a popular topic in the PD community. People with Parkinson’s have reported improvement in pain management, sleep dysfunction, weight loss and nausea after using marijuana. However, clinical studies have not proven that cannabis can directly benefit Parkinson’s symptoms.
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Has there been enough research on medical marijuana and its effects on Parkinson's disease to form an opinion?
Unfortunately, no. Studies have not clearly supported the use of marijuana for PD, and are often not conducted on a large enough scale; some studies have as few as five subjects. While some study results have been positive, others show the downsides for people with Parkinson’s, like impaired cognition, dizziness and loss of balance. The Parkinson’s Foundation believes in research. Through this conference, we hope to find out if and how medical marijuana can make life better for people with Parkinson’s. Getting experts together in one room can get us on the path to make research recommendations that can lead to answers.
What specific areas of research regarding Parkinson's disease and medical marijuana need to be expanded upon most?
We need research to help us determine how medical marijuana should be administered and how its long-term use can affect PD symptoms. There are hundreds of strains and various ways to use medical marijuana, and it can all differ from state to state. To ensure safety for people who use medical marijuana, states that legalize medical marijuana will eventually need to develop training programs for doctors and medical teams that prescribe medical marijuana.