How Cannabis Enhances Cognitive Function and Sleep in Individuals with Cancer

How Cannabis Enhances Cognitive Function and Sleep in Individuals with Cancer

Angela Bryan has been conducting research on cancer prevention for several years. In 2017, however, her personal and professional lives collided when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she had just begun studying the use of cannabis among cancer patients. The lack of data on the topic left her uncertain about using traditional opioids for postoperative pain relief. She sought her doctors’ opinions on medicinal cannabis, but they were unable to provide any guidance due to the shortage of research.

Hoping to address this knowledge gap, Bryan recently collaborated on a groundbreaking study that suggests cannabis use may benefit cancer patients. The study reveals that patients who use cannabis to manage their symptoms experience reduced pain, better sleep, and improved cognitive function after a few weeks of long-term use.

Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, stated, “When patients’ pain decreased after using cannabis for a while, their cognition improved.” The study, published in the journal Exploration in Medicine, stands out as one of the first to examine the effects of over-the-counter cannabis on cancer symptoms and chemotherapy side effects. It also sheds light on the wide range of cannabis products used by cancer patients since its legalization in most states.

About 40% of cancer patients in the U.S. reportedly use cannabis, while only one-third of physicians feel comfortable discussing it with their patients. Federal law further complicates the study of cannabis, as it prohibits university researchers from possessing or distributing cannabis for research purposes unless it is government-issued or pharmaceutical grade. Consequently, most previous studies have focused solely on prescription products or government strains that lack the variety and potency found in over-the-counter products.

To conduct the study, Bryan partnered with oncologists Dr. Ross Camidge and Dr. Daniel Bowles at the CU Anschutz medical campus. They observed 25 cancer patients using cannabis for a two-week period. After an initial assessment of pain levels, sleep patterns, and cognition, the patients were instructed to purchase an edible product of their choice from a pharmacy. These products ranged from chocolates, gummies, and tinctures to pills and cakes, each with varying ratios of THC to CBD. Bryan noted, “This tells us that people are willing to try anything they think might be helpful, but there just isn’t a lot of data to help them determine what works best.”

To study the acute effects, the researchers brought a mobile lab to each patient’s home. The participants underwent physical and cognitive assessments before and after using cannabis. The study found that cannabis significantly relieved patients’ pain within an hour, but it also affected their cognition and induced a “high” based on THC levels.

In the long term, the study revealed that after two weeks of continuous cannabis use, patients reported improvements in pain, sleep quality, and cognitive function. Objective measures of cognitive function, including reaction times, also improved. Bryan expressed surprise at these findings, as both cannabis and chemotherapy have previously been associated with thinking difficulties. Patients who consumed more CBD, a known anti-inflammatory compound found in cannabis, reported greater improvements in pain relief and sleep quality.

While larger controlled studies are necessary to draw conclusive results, the study’s authors believe these findings provide an intriguing possibility. They speculate that while certain forms and doses of pain-relieving cannabis may affect short-term thinking, long-term treatment may improve cognition by reducing pain. The potential indirect role of cannabis in enhancing subjective cognitive function among cancer patients undergoing treatment warrants further investigation.

“We know that oncologists and patients are concerned about the potential negative impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function, so the potential, indirect role of cannabis use in improving subjective cognitive function needs further study,” stated first author Gregory Giordano, a professional research assistant in the Department of Psychology and Neurosciences.

Source: (EN)

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