New Studies Explore the Benefits of Cannabis for People Living with HIV

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While the global, show-stopping drama of COVID-19 has been stealing the bulk of the media’s attention, two new studies on cannabis and HIV have flown under the radar. 

In truth, the idea that cannabis can help mitigate the symptoms of HIV is nothing new. People living with HIV/AIDS have used marijuana to help relieve symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss for years – with or without the blessing of the medical establishment. 

But even in scientific circles, cannabis’s invaluable role in helping people stay on antiretroviral drugs is well documented. These drugs often come with awful side effects, and, to put it simply, cannabis helps. Studies like this one, from the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, highlight the significant benefits of cannabis for HIV symptom management. 

But two new studies add to the growing weight of evidence that cannabis’s benefits go well beyond HIV symptom control.             

The first study, which took place at UC San Diego (and which you can read in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), focused on HIV-related neurocognitive impairment. Specifically, researchers were interested in how the combined factors of age and cannabis use impact the condition.

Neurocognitive impairment continues to impact between 30 and 50 percent of all people infected with HIV. At its worst, its effects can look similar to those of Alzheimer’s. But the list of symptoms is a depressing litany, which includes “delirium, neurobehavioral impairments (depression), and minor cognitive-motor dysfunction.” 

This is obviously a huge quality-of-life issue for those living with HIV. And it only gets worse as people age. Ironically, the great success of antiviral drugs, which has granted people with HIV longer lifespans, has also emphasized the urgent need for treatments for neurocognitive decline. 

Going into the study, researchers hypothesized that cannabis’s anti-inflammatory properties might be beneficial in the context of aging and HIV. In particular, they were looking for evidence that cannabis use over time might decrease the likelihood of cognitive impairment.

The great success of antiviral drugs, which has granted people with HIV longer lifespans, has also emphasized the urgent need for treatments for neurocognitive decline. 

This was an extensive study involving hundreds of participants that had previously taken part in UC San Diego’s HIV Neurobehavioral Research Program.  The final group of participants included both 679 HIV-positive and 273 HIV-negative individuals, with ages ranging from 18 to 79. (Researchers excluded anyone that had a history of non-HIV-related neurological, medical, or psychiatric disorders that affect brain function.)

For this particular study, researchers weren’t at all interested in occasional or casual cannabis use. In fact, the study abstract defines cannabis exposure as both a “history of cannabis use disorder and use within the past year.”

Given that definition, the results were conclusive. For those living with HIV, there was a clear link between cannabis exposure and a 47% lower likelihood of neurocognitive impairment. Interestingly, among participants who were HIV-negative, this study didn’t show any correlation between cannabis exposure and neurocognitive impairment.

The study’s abstract records the researchers’ findings in a typically understated manner: 

 “Findings suggest cannabis exposure is linked to a lower odds of neurocognitive impairment in the context of HIV. A possible mechanism of this result is the anti-inflammatory effect of cannabis, which may be particularly important for people living with HIV.”

But that study was just the first of two to investigate the impact of cannabis on the brains of people living with HIV. This spring saw the publication of a second study from UC San Diego. For this study, researchers took on blood-brain barrier injury.

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time pondering the importance of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). But it plays a critical role in the central nervous system, regulating what reaches our brains from the rest of our bodies. 

One of HIV’s damaging effects is that it can cause a breakdown in the barrier, with debilitating results. Symptoms of this breakdown include cognitive, behavioral, and motor problems, which can make life incredibly difficult.

Frustratingly, BBB injury has proved to be a tough problem for scientists. But preclinical models have shown that cannabis can restore BBB integrity, so hopes were high that the clinical results would be as promising.

As it turned out, the results were not as conclusive as researchers might have hoped. However, they did show some genuine benefit from cannabis.  According to the author, Dr. Ronald Ellis, “We are currently conducting studies aimed at determining doses and whether potential benefits are attributable to THC or cannabidiol.”

So the research continues. These studies bolster the already existing evidence that cannabis does indeed help people living with HIV lead better, longer lives. But further, they also demonstrate the value of listening to patients, many of whom took advantage of cannabis’s benefits long before they had the option of medical marijuana.

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