A new Wollongong study has found that an active compound in cannabis could help improve some of the negative and drug resistant symptoms of schizophrenia.
The compound – cannabidiol (CBD) – must be isolated from the plant and the other psychoactive compounds, which are potentially harmful to those with the disease.
The researchers say their findings could be used develop new pharmaceutical drugs to treat schizophrenia – a debilitating mental illness that ranks among the top 10 causes of disability in developed countries worldwide.
The disease affects about 1 in 100 Australians, and can reduce a person’s life expectancy by up to 18 years.
It is also major cause of suicide: up to half of schizophrenia patients attempt suicide and five per cent die by suicide.
Using previous studies, researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute had been exploring the therapeutic potential of CBD, including its role in improving aspects of learning and memory in illnesses associated with cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer’s disease and neurological disorders.
Research supervisor, Dr Katrina Green said the evidence suggested CBD was “neuroprotective” and would reduce the impairment associated with the main psychoactive component of cannabis, THC.
From this, PhD candidate Ashleigh Osborne worked with other researchers to conduct a study on rodents with schizophrenia, finding the cannabis compound was able to restore recognition and working memory, as well as social behaviour to normal levels.
“These findings are interesting because they suggest that CBD may be able to treat some of the symptoms of schizophrenia that are seemingly resistant to existing medications,” she said.
“In addition, CBD treatment did not alter body weight or food intake, which are common side effects of antipsychotic drug treatment.”
Current anti-psychotic medications can help treat the delusions and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia, but are less effective in treating cognitive symptoms, social withdrawal and blunted emotional expression.
Dr Green said the research team was excited about their results but further testing was needed to determine whether CBD would have the same beneficial effects in people with schizophrenia.
The researchers emphasised that they did not endorse the use of cannabis products to treat schizophrenia, as some ingredients, like THC, have the potential to aggravate symptoms.