Cannabis for Schizophrenia: Is it a Recommended Treatment?

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Over the past three decades, a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence has pointed to medical cannabis as a potentially safer way to treat the symptoms of many health conditions. Now, with nationwide efforts to legalize medical cannabis, researchers have begun to explore novel ways of helping patients overcome debilitating illnesses. One of the emerging research breakthroughs has been the role of cannabis and its effects on schizophrenia treatment. 

Schizophrenia: Links Between Cannabis and Cognitive Impairment

The scientific community has struggled to grasp the challenges associated with the development of schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that can dramatically alter how a person behaves. Sometimes referred to as schizoaffective disorder, this condition is characterized by both positive and negative symptoms, including:

  • Delusions
  • Dysfunctional thought processes
  • Reduction in sensations of pleasure
  • Agitation
  • Emotional “flatness” or disaffection
  • Poor memory and the inability to process decision-making information

Schizophrenia affects nearly 4 million people in the United States, with younger people in their early twenties at higher risk of developing the disorder. In past studies, researchers have questioned whether cannabis is a risk factor for the onset of schizophrenia. However, as knowledge of and research into cannabis has developed in recent years and more studies have been performed into the role of cannabinoids as a treatment rather than a risk factor, researchers are now looking into how cannabis can actually benefit those struggling with schizophrenia.

Cannabis as Schizophrenia Treatment?

According to a study published in the journal Nature, a team of researchers from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute in Australia has unlocked potential therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis in treating schizophrenia. This finding runs counter to several other studies in the past that had shown the negative effects of cannabinoid exposure on the developing human brain. 

In the Australian study, the cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, or CBD, was demonstrated to help schizophrenia patients overcome and manage some of the cognitive impairment associated with the disorder. CBD was shown to treat symptoms more effectively and in a safer manner than traditional medications. Current medications used to treat schizophrenia do not address the cognitive deficits associated with the disorder, and this is important, because about 80% of all schizophrenia patients experience cognitive dysfunction. 

In other studies, CBD has demonstrated neuroprotective effects. Like THC, CBD binds to the endocannabinoid receptors in the human body and may restore balance to that system. Its powerful anti-inflammatory effects may also have a positive effect on those with certain mental disorders, including schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome, only to name a few. 

An Alternative to Antipsychotic Medications

Medical professionals attempt to control the symptoms of schizophrenia with powerful antipsychotic medications, some of which produce unpleasant or negative side effects. Side effects may include random muscle spasms or “tics”, undesired weight gain, and motor skills dysfunction. As mentioned above, antipsychotic medications are poor at treating the cognitive impairments many schizophrenia patients experience.

CBD, on the other hand, activates the CB2 receptors in the human endocannabinoid system, replacing chemicals that are naturally produced in the human body. This binding effect has been shown to rebalance the system, allowing for efficient and accurate transmission of nerve signals throughout the body. Best of all, CBD produces few, if any, side effects, and is seen as a safer alternative to a broad range of antipsychotic medications. 

Further Research is Needed

Unfortunately for the millions of people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the U.S., research into medical cannabis as a therapeutic option has been stunted. Because cannabis use has traditionally been thought of as a risk factor for developing the disorder in some studies, medical researchers have been wary of exposing patients to cannabis products in clinical trials. Thankfully, some research is ongoing, into the full nature of cannabis’s interaction with schizophrenia, not just as a risk factor but also as a treatment. Medical researchers are hopeful that they will unravel the relationship between cannabinoids and schizophrenia.

For now, signs are pointing to potential benefits to the use of medical cannabis in schizophrenia treatment; as research continues, new discoveries are sure to be made.