With all the positive momentum surrounding the legalization of medical marijuana, it can be easy to forget that the research into Mary Jane’s possible medicinal uses is in many ways only in its infancy.

In the United States, that lag can be squarely blamed on the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act; a classification that labels marijuana one of the most dangerous drugs in existence with no accepted medicinal value. Despite that, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved synthetic versions of chemicals either found in marijuana, or that are closely related to it for use. And there has been encouraging research into its benefits for those undergoing chemotherapy, suffering multiple sclerosis, and various other types of chronic pain. According to a new study emerging from the Netherlands, however, medicinal pot may not be a miracle worker when it comes to treating symptoms of dementia, including aggressive and wandering behaviors.

Published in today’s issue of Neurology, the study, the largest of its kind according to the authors, enrolled 50 dementia patients to randomly receive either 4.5 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of marijuana, or a placebo every day for three weeks. They also evaluated the severity of their participants’ behavioral symptoms using the Neuropsychiatric Inventory index, both at the beginning of the trial and at the two and three week interval. Though there were noticeable improvements in the dementia sufferers, there were no significant differences between the treatment and placebo groups. Similarly, additional measures of their quality of life, pain intensity and changes in agitation were identical between the groups.

For the bright spot, there were also no significant differences in the amount of side effects seen; leading the authors to conclude that THC was well-tolerated by the patients. Their results might not necessarily doom the idea that THC can be useful for dementia either. "Since the side effects were mild to moderate, it's possible that a higher dose could be tolerated and could possibly be beneficial," said study author Geke A.H. van den Elsen in a press release, "Future studies are needed to test this. A drug that can treat the behavioral symptoms of dementia is much needed, as about 62 percent of dementia patients in the general community and up to 80 percent of nursing home residents experience these symptoms."

Even if there are no real therapeutic benefits to marijuana for dementia sufferers, simply expanding the knowledge scientists have about the controversial drug can only further aid in developing new directions for research. And for the public, perhaps the best lesson to take away from this study is about what did work to improve dementia sufferers’ lives; van den Elsen noting that the extra attention and support from the study and nursing personnel may have lifted their participants’ spirits.   

Source: van den Elsen G, Ahmed A, Verkes R-J, et al. Tetrahydrocannabinol for neuropsychiatric symptoms in dementia. Neurology. 2015