A new research study into the impact of cannabinoid therapy on local residents with dementia could be a ‘game changer’ says Dr. Blake Pearson.
“We are officially up and running, which is exciting,” said Pearson, who, in partnership with Lambton College and Steeves & Rozema Nursing Homes has been awarded a three-year, $360,000 research grant by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
“There was a lot of leg work just to get to this point, so now we can actually start the study, and we’ve enrolled our first patient.”
The study will involve residents at three local Steeves & Rozema homes — Trillium Villa, Twin Lakes Terrace, Afton Park Place, and a fourth home in Windsor — to investigate the impact of cannabinoid therapy on dementia symptoms, behaviours and even caregiver distress.
“This study has the potential to be a real game changer,” said Pearson, the co-principal investigator with Lambton College lead researcher Dr. Mikelle Bryson-Campbell.
“Not only are we excited by the impact this study could have within our community, but also on the millions of individuals living with dementia worldwide. This is a real opportunity to showcase our leadership and innovation on a global scale.”
Pearson, a Corunna native and family physician, is internationally recognized for his work in cannabis medicine and efforts to legitimize cannabinoid therapy as a safer alternative to opioids and anti-psychotic drugs.
“Traditionally, anti-psychotic medications are used to manage the behaviours of dementia, and they’re just terrible drugs with very severe, well-known side effects,” he said.
“And so the idea is, we improve the patients’ symptoms with cannabinoid medicine, and we’re able to reduce the anti-psychotics, which is a big win for the patients.”
Pearson closed his family practice in 2018 to focus exclusively on cannabis-based medicine, becoming one of the first doctors in Canada to do so.
Locally, he treats dozens of elderly patients in long-term care each week, and fields referrals from across Ontario, which he’s able to do virtually.
The study, he stressed, is not about healing or halting dementia. It’s about managing the behaviours associated with the disease — such as mood, calling out, agitation and trouble sleeping.
“I’ll be treating the patients and practicing the medicine, while the research team collects the data with the long-term care home and the patient families,” he explained. They will also monitor the caregiver burnout that often accompanies dementia patients.
“We’re also hoping that with more data, that [cannabinoid therapy] will be covered for dementia patients. Right now, the families have to pay out of pocket… and that cost is a barrier to treatment.”
“My hope is that this will just be even more evidence for what I see clinically — which is, that patients can improve their symptoms — those responsive behaviours,” he said. “And to build awareness within healthcare in general, about the safe, natural alternative to anti-psychotics.”
While Pearson has seen an increase in physician uptake in recent years, the human endocannabinoid system still isn’t taught in medical school, Pearson noted.
“There’s still a long way to go. There’s some fundamental changes that need to happen in the curriculum to support more physical adoption as well,” said Pearson, who is committing $100,000 of his own funds to the project.
“I’m just very passionate about this… I’ve seen the benefits first-hand,” he added. “It’s really exciting to be partnering with the college, and a local company like Steeves & Rozema, to do research that is going to be viewed on a global scale.
“And to be able to do it from home — it’s pretty cool.”