Greg Spier doesn’t remember his father ever talking about his experiences during the Holocaust. But after developing Alzheimer’s disease, the suppressed trauma from the concentration camps resurfaced to torment him. And the son could only stand by, helplessly, watching his father wracked by anxiety and sleeplessness that no medication his doctors came up with could relieve.
After all else failed, a cannabis gummy, smuggled in by a family member, finally gave the elder Spier a reprieve from his suffering. The effects were immediate and notable. As Spier recalls, his father became calm, slept well and the next day was more relaxed and lucid than he had been for months.
It is difficult not to be moved when you witness someone close to you benefits so profoundly from cannabis medicine. And such stories abound, filling the statistically useless pool of anecdotal evidence. But some individuals are able to leverage their positive cannabis encounter in a meaningful way. And Greg Spier is one of them.
Motivated by the experience of the family patriarch, the Spier Family Foundation recently decided to fund a study on cannabis as a treatment for Alzheimers disease.
Funding research in spite of the government
The federal government’s draconian restrictions on cannabis research have limited evidence-based findings to a trickle. But pressure is mounting for this to change. In a recent op-ed piece, Reps. Earl L. Carter (R-FL) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) take the government to task for obstructing that research:
“In 2019, we believe there should be more medical options available outside of traditional therapies, and it’s troubling that the federal government is standing in the way of research to clearly determine the health benefits of cannabis. Cannabis could be a life-changing miracle for some patients, and we need the research to prove so, or to let patients know that they need to pursue a different treatment.”
In the meantime, charitable giving, like the recent, major gift by cannabis investor Bob Broderick, is stepping in to fill the gap.
A mandate for medical research
Supporting medical research is part of the Spier Family Foundation’s mandate, with a specific focus on areas ignored by mainstream, big-pharma. In the past, the Boston-based foundation had supported Alzheimer’s research at McLean, the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric hospital. After his father’s dramatic cannabis experience, Greg Spier approached Dr. Brent Forester, Chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Division, this time with the idea of funding a cannabis study for Alzheimer’s.
He found Dr. Forester open to the idea. Along with the success stories Dr. Forester had heard from patients who had used cannabis, he was also aware of the anxiety and other unwanted side effects that other patients had reported. A study that could help ascertain for the first time (in the United States) whether cannabis is safe and effective for Alzheimer’s patients, and in what formulation and dosage, he felt, would be an important contribution to science.
Collaborating with MIND
To collaborate on the study, Dr. Forester reached out to his colleague, Dr. Staci Gruber, a leading expert on both recreational and medical marijuana. Dr. Gruber is the founder and Director of MIND, the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean, and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
According to Dr. Forester, when he proposed the study to Dr. Gruber, ”she said she had already identified older adults as an important clinical population, particularly those with anxiety and agitation – so the timing and the alignment of what she is interested in already is really fortuitous.”
Dr. Gruber already has FDA approval to study a novel, whole plant derived, full-spectrum, high-CBD low-THC cannabis formulation in individuals with anxiety under an investigational new drug (IND) application. Now, she and Dr. Forester are working on designing a study to examine the safety and efficacy of a similar formulation for a population of Alzheimer’s patients.
A small pilot study
At this point, they envision a very small, open-label pilot study of about 10 patients, where a novel cannabinoid-based compound will be added to the treatments the patients are currently receiving. Both safety and clinical efficacy outcome measures will be assessed.
Dr. Forester acknowledges that, for many patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the effectiveness of commonly used anti-psychotic, depression and anxiety medications is limited, and they can cause challenging side-effects. The goal for the study they envision is to see whether cannabis can relieve the very common symptoms of dementia that include agitation, aggression, depression and anxiety, as well as improve sleep and appetite, using standardized rating scales and other testing measures.
Once the study design is completed, the investigators will need to secure approvals from their Institutional Review Board to conduct the study, and from the FDA to implement a similar study to the one being conducted in patients with anxiety.
And if and when the study is completed, and positive effects are observed, Dr. Forester would like to continue with a more rigorous protocol.
The train has left the station
In the meantime, Dr. Forester acknowledges the widespread use of cannabis by older adults to treat a wide variety of symptoms, and that the research will probably never catch up with what is going on in the field.
“That’s just the reality. But I think it’s really important that we have some research out there to support what people are doing with their own decisions….some of the ingredients in marijuana can actually make anxiety worse – and cause people to become agitated and anxious and not sleep as well. Who is that going to affect, and at what dose, and what ratio of CBD to THC? There are so many questions. So I think that adding something to the literature – or at least moving in that direction – is going to be important.”
In the meantime, the cannabis gummies that helped Greg Spier’s father are now being put to good use by his 91-year-old mother. Completely off of Atavan, which was affecting her during the day, she now takes a gummy every night before bed, and, according to Spier, is sleeping better than she has in the last 50 years.
Ultimately, Spier’s motivation to support this study is simple: “I just feel like someone needs to properly quantify what the useful parts of the drug are for dementia patients. Comparing the special cocktail of drugs they came up with for my father – that actually made things worse – to a $2 cannabis gummy bear, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”