Role of Cannabinoids in Multiple Sclerosis
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Although extracts from the cannabis plant have been used medicinally for thousands of years, it is only within the last 2 decades that our understanding of cannabinoid physiology and the provision of evidence for therapeutic benefit of cannabinoids has begun to accumulate. This review provides a background to advances in our understanding of cannabinoid receptors and the endocannabinoid system, and then considers how cannabinoids may help in the management of multiple sclerosis (MS).
The relative paucity of treatments for MS-related symptoms has led to experimentation by patients with MS in a number of areas including the use of cannabis extracts. An increasing amount of evidence is now emerging to confirm anecdotal reports of symptomatic improvement, particularly for muscle stiffness and spasms, neuropathic pain and sleep and bladder disturbance, in patients with MS treated with cannabinoids. Trials evaluating a role in treating other symptoms such as tremor and nystagmus have not demonstrated any beneficial effects of cannabinoids. Safety profiles of cannabinoids seem acceptable, although a slow prolonged period of titration improves tolerability. No serious safety concerns have emerged.
Methodological issues in trial design and treatment delivery are now being addressed. In addition, recent experimental evidence is beginning to suggest an effect of cannabinoids on more fundamental processes important in MS, with evidence of anti-inflammation, encouragement of remyelination and neuroprotection. Trials are currently under way to test whether cannabinoids may have a longer term role in reducing disability and progression in MS, in addition to symptom amelioration, where indications are being established.