Updated on August 16, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
This past year has seen some exciting developments in groundbreaking cannabis studies. As researchers continue to unlock the plant’s incredible therapeutic potential, they help us deepen our understanding and see old misconceptions about cannabis die away.
In this post, we will explore some of 2018’s greatest cannabis research developments. Unsurprisingly, cannabidiol (CBD) continues to garner a lot of attention in the medical field. However, studies on the whole plant continue to escalate, as well, unlocking potential treatments for cancer, autism and a wide range of other serious ailments.
Although this list is by no means exhaustive, here is just a taste of what we learned in 2018.
During the study, hundreds of elderly Israeli patients were given medical cannabis to treat their painful symptoms. The majority of participants had never used marijuana before. After six months, 93 percent of patients reported a significant improvement in their symptoms, especially chronic pain. Their medical cannabis use also allowed them to decrease the amount of prescriptions meds they took, including opioids. The study concluded that cannabis used as a treatment is both safe and effective for elderly adults.
Although many users laud cannabis as a stimulant for sexual pleasure and report that using it increases sexual desire, few studies have actually examined these anecdotal findings, until now. This year saw the publication of several new studies which serve to expand our knowledge about marijuana’s relationship to sex.
Another study out of Stanford University used data extracted from the National Survey of Family Growth comparing those who used cannabis and those who abstained — 22 percent more men and 34 percent more women who consumed marijuana enjoyed a greater sexual frequency. The amount of sex increased among participants who used cannabis more than once a week.
As the opioid epidemic continues to rage in the U.S., researchers look for ways to reduce the number of overdoses caused by these drugs. The answer may lie with cannabis. A February 2018 study showed that by adding medical marijuana to the treatment plant of patients struggling with chronic pain, they were able to receive the same amount of pain relief from smaller doses of opioids.
This study has incredible implications, as it could reduce the dependency of pain patients currently taking opioids to relieve their symptoms and lower their risk of overdose and other potential harms. The research study confirms that cannabis, when combined with prescription opioids, creates a synergistic effect, increasing the effectiveness while consuming fewer opioids.
CBD Protection in Aging Brain Diseases
Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has had a patent on the use of cannabinoids as neuroprotectants because of ample evidence of its effectiveness at treating neurological damage. A study published in the Brain Research Bulletin found that cannabidiol (CBD), a prevalent cannabinoid found in cannabis, could be used to protect the brain from neurodegenerative aging diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
As people age, mineral levels in their body and brain continue to increase. Minerals, like iron, found in excessive amounts in certain regions of the brain could be a contributing factor to aging brain diseases. CBD protects against the damaging effects of iron overload by enabling the cell’s energy producer, the mitochondria, to better handle the excess iron.
CBD is also a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which may also contribute to its ability to protect cells’ mitochondria and their DNA. The study concluded that the use of CBD may be an effective preventative tool in brain diseases caused by aging.
Improved Efficacy of Cancer Treatment
Although many cancer patients use cannabis treatments for symptoms related to the disease, like nausea and pain, recent studies have focused on the efficacy of cannabis to treat cancer itself. Several 2018 studies showed that the plant contains anti-cancer effects, taking us one step closer to the development of cannabis-based cancer treatments:
A study conducted by Austrian scientists showed that activating the CB1 receptor caused tumor-suppressing effects on colon cancer. This receptor is especially receptive to THC, meaning THC could have tumor-suppressing effects. The same study showed that the GPR55 receptor when activated, promoted tumor growth. CBD has been shown to block the activity of this receptor and thus could also suppress cancer growth.
Another cancer-related study out of Portugal investigated the effects of the cannabinoids CBD and THC on cancer of the uterus. CBD activated TRPV1 receptors, causing many of the cancerous cells to die. However, THC had no effect in this case. Because this form of cancer remains unresponsive in many patients, CBD could be a promising therapeutic option.
These previous studies were conducted on cultured cells, not on live rodents or humans. However, another research study this year used a combination of cannabinoids and radiation therapy to treat small tumors in mice. They found that by combining these two treatment methods, the animals had a better overall survival rate than untreated mice or those who only received one type of treatment.
In Israel, an early-stage clinical trial was conducted on 60 children with autism spectrum disorder. Researchers measured the effect a CBD-dominant cannabis treatment had on a variety of symptoms associated with the condition.
After administering the cannabis medication, parents were asked how they felt the treatment worked. The study found that 61 percent of parents saw an improvement in their children’s symptoms, including:
Because of the success of this study, further research into the efficacy of cannabis treatments for autism patients will be conducted in the near future. What makes this particular research study so monumental is the fact that it’s the first formal investigation into seeing if medical marijuana has any therapeutic benefits for those with autism spectrum disorder.
With all these exciting findings from 2018, we’re confident we can look forward to another year of breakthrough research in the field of medical marijuana.