medical marijuana

Cannabinoids: the other side of the coin, side effects, drug-drug interaction and possible problems of cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Board-Certified Neurologist, Epileptologist

@VThornleyMD

April 6, 2018

 

Introduction

Medical marijuana seems like the shining breakthrough drug the shining pill in armor, the magic pill that seems to cure everything. However, there are always two sides to every coin. One must still proceed with caution. The phytocannabinoids, cannabidiol, and tetrahydrocannabinol exert their effects through the endocannabinoid pathway, the CB1 receptor is most abundantly found in the nervous system. Cannabidiol which has no euphoria acts weakly with the CB1 receptor almost as a reverse agonist blocking the THC from exerting its effect offsetting potent side effects of tetrahydrocannabinol.

The medical benefits are overwhelmingly numerous including ameliorating seizures, spasms from multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy in HIV patients, chronic debilitating pain, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and other associated diseases. Despite the stigma of using it, the delay in clinical trials and marked hesitation of the medical community, medical marijuana has landed and there is no going back. Yet even with its numerous health benefits, it is always prudent to take a step back and examine any flaws as with any other new kid on the block or any new agent that comes along even though it’s been around for thousands of years.

Is marijuana safe for medical use? The take on medical marijuana by the FDA

So far from the FDA official website, the FDA does not recognize medical marijuana coming from the botanical plant with any medical indication. The FDA does not recognize it to be safe or beneficial for any type of disease or condition. The FDA will facilitate any companies interested in bringing quality products including science-based research. The full take of the FDA on marijuana can be found here https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm421168.htm#use

Long-term effects on the brain

Perusing the scientific literature, it is difficult to find any long-term damage to the brain. There was a report in a heavy marijuana user where there was damage to the corpus callosum, possibly worse with young users (1). This is a small study of 11 heavy marijuana users with 11 age-matched cohorts. Diffusion tensor imaging was used. Previous reports alluded towards poor cognition with heavy marijuana use. This study is aligned with that. It was suggested that there may be increased diffusibility within the white matter tracts of the corpus callosum. Young age is thought to make the corpus more susceptible to white matter damage. The only caveat is this is with heavy use and the substance found in recreational marijuana is going to be a different form compared to medical marijuana extracted from the marijuana plant used for medicinal purposes. It is not clear if this report would carry over to medical marijuana users where the preparation of the product is much different(1).

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Effect on schizophrenia spectrum diseases

In a large study of 171 patients, it was found that with heavy use of cannabis, the age of onset of schizophrenia spectrum disorders seems to occur earlier (6). This is one of the reasons why in some dispensaries, it is not sold to patients with a history of schizophrenia. There are some anecdotal reports of some patients having a paranoia with medical marijuana that is reversible once taken off.

Effect on the heart, reports of myocardial infarcts and ST elevations

While the literature suggests low toxicity and most side effects are related to cognition and gastrointestinal problems, there are several cannabis-associated myocardial infarcts in the literature. The dispensaries in the state of Florida use a previous history of a previous myocardial infarct as a contraindication in using medical marijuana. These were synthetic drugs used recreationally. There was one case report where a heavy user suffered from an ST elevation and subsequent myocardial infarct after becoming toxic to marijuana used recreationally.  In one study, synthetic cannabis was used, the myocardial happened to a young patient where an atheromatous plaque was excluded as the source. Etiology and mechanism are unclear why infarcts should occur. It is quite possible that because it works on the 5HT receptor for anxiety which can cause vasoconstriction, this may be one mechanism. Other studies are needed to elucidate the mechanism of action.

Drug-drug interactions

Because medical marijuana is used as an adjunctive agent for epilepsy, perhaps off-label since it has not been approved through FDA as an anti-epileptic agent yet, it was found that medical marijuana used in conjunction with Clobazam (Onfi) tended to elevate Onfi at higher levels.

In one small clinical study, in 13 patients, 9 had an increase of about 60 in the Clobazam level and by 300 in Norclobazam level. There was, however, a tremendous reduction of seizures by >50% but Onfi (Clobazam and Norclobazam levels) should be monitored (3) on a routine basis to avoid any untoward toxicity.

Other milder symptoms

In one large study on Lennox-Gastaut syndrome where cannabidiol was titrated to a 20mg/kg over a course of 14 weeks, mild to moderate symptoms were noted including pyrexia, sedation, dizziness, and diarrhea. However, the titration rate was very rapid and the patents who were 50kg were quickly at 1000mg within 14 weeks which does not usually happen in the real world. Medications are usually increased over a longer period of time in slower increments.

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In summary

While everybody is touting the horn of medical marijuana it is always prudent to stand back and ensure there are no possible risk factors for adverse side effects. The most serious and common seen in the literature appear to be related to schizophrenia spectrum disorders and cannabis associated myocardial infarct. The only caveat is that the literature is peppered with these reports, however, the quality of the recreational drugs are vastly different from medical marijuana which tends to be organic and all natural extracted from the plant in licensed medical dispensaries. The extraction of the medical components is vastly different from the smoked synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol. So, is difficult to know if these reports would actually corroborate with use in medical marijuana. The ones with side effects were heavy users of recreational smoked types of marijuana, it is unclear if it was synthetic or organic. As the popularity of medical marijuana progresses, more information will be available regarding the side effect profile.

References

  1. Arnone, et al, “Corpus callosum damage in heavy use: preliminary evidence from diffusion tensor tractography and tract-based spatial statistics,” Neuroimage, 2008, Jul., 1, 41 (3): 1067-74.  “J Addict Med. 2017 Sep/Oct;11(5):405-407. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000326.
  2. Volpon, et al, “Multiple cerebral infarcts in a young patient associated with marijuana use, ” Journ. Addic. Med, 2017, Sep./Oct., 11(5):405-407.
  3. Geffrey, Drug-drug interaction between clobazam and cannabidiol in children with refractory epilepsy,” Epilepsia, 2015, Aug., 58 (8):1246-1251.
  4. Stewart, et al, “Obstructive sleep apnea due to laryngospasm links ictal to postictal events in SUDEP cases and offers practical biomarkers for review of past cases and prevention of new ones,” Epilepsia, 2017, Jun., 58(6): e87-90
  5. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm421168.htm#use
  6. Shahzade, et al, “Patterns in adolescent cannabis use predict the onset and symptom structure of schizophrenia-spectrum disorder,” Schizophrenia Research, 2018, Feb., 2 pii S090-9964 doi:10. 1016/j. schres. 2018.01.008 (Epub ahead of print)
  7. Orsini, et al, “Prolonged cardiac arrest complicating massive ST-segment elevation myocardial infarct associated with myocardial consumption,” J. Community Hosp. Intern. Med. Perspect, 2016, Sep., 7. 6 (4):31695
  8. Thiele, et al, “Cannabidiol in patients with seizures from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (GWPCARE4): a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled phase 3 trial,” Lancet, 2018, Jan., 390 (10125):1085-1096

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Cannabidiol: a large study in the U.S., Netherlands, and Poland shows its efficacy in patients with the epileptic disorder Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist

@VThornleyMD

March 31, 2018

Introduction

Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome is an epileptic syndrome starting in childhood characterized by a wide spectrum of seizures and slow spike and wave on EEG. The seizures are characterized by the classic mnemonic “a fall, a jerk and a stare” or atonic seizures, myoclonus and complex partial seizures, although there are many other different types. Slow spike and wave generalized epileptiform discharges of 2.5 Hertz or less on electroencephalogram clinch the diagnosis. Patients are often delayed in development. Controlling seizures, because of the sheer complexity, of the different types is often a medical challenge.

Methods of the study

A new study using cannabidiol, which is the non-psychoactive medical component of the cannabis sativa plant, was carried out with the results recently demonstrating value. It covered 24 sites from the U.S., the Netherlands and Poland and studied seizures in patients medically refractory to medications using cannabidiol as an adjunctive add-on agent.  171 patients were enrolled from April 28, 2015, to October 15, 2015, and were randomly assigned to either the placebo control or the group with cannabidiol. 86 received cannabidiol and 85 were in the placebo group. 14 discontinued treatment in the cannabidiol group and 1 in the placebo group. All patients had at least one dose of treatment. Eligible patients ranged from 2-55 years old. Cannabidiol was given at a dose of 20mg/kg.

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Seizure reduction

The results were startling, there was a reduction of seizures by 43.9% in the cannabidiol group and 21% in the control group. 86% patients had side effects in the cannabidiol group and 69% in the control group on placebo. These included somnolence, pyrexia, diarrhea, reduced appetite, and vomiting. 12 stopped in the cannabidiol group due to adverse reactions considered mild to moderate while 1 withdrew from the placebo group. 1 died due to unrelated causes from the cannabidiol group.

Conclusion

Reviewing this study, perhaps one of my critiques of this study is that the dosage was 20mg/kg in a 14-week study which means that within 14 weeks a patient of 50 kg. would have been ramped up to about 1000mg. In real life practice, medications are titrated more gradually over a period of months before maximum efficacy may be seen and in such a gradual way in order to avoid side effects. Although a large percentage of patients had side effects which were mild to moderate, it is quite possible they may have needed a smaller dose and the dosages were increased more than it was necessary to achieve the beneficial effects seen in the study within a short period of time. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that cannabidiol, a product of the Cannabis sativa plant, shows a reduction in seizures in a patient with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

This study concluded that there is some efficacy of cannabidiol in Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, one of the most difficult epileptic syndromes to treat, and was found with only very mild to moderate side effects. An open-label study as an extension to this study is currently ongoing.

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Reference

  1. Thiele, et al,. “Cannabidiol in patients with seizures from Lennox Gastaut Syndrome (GWPCARE4): a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled phase 3 trial,” Lancet, 2018, Jan., 390 (10125):1085-1096.
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Epilepsy

Seizure alert dogs: can they really sense seizures of their owners?

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist

March 28, 2018

Introduction

Seizures are a result of recurrent electrical impulses in the brain causing repetitive symptoms pertaining to that area. At times, patients will not know when they occur.

Scientific studies

Seizure alert dogs are used to detect seizures that are undetectable to humans which may be either through olfactory senses or a change in the behavior. In one study, patients utilizing the seizure alert dog were studied. Seizure frequency was monitored for 48 weeks including a baseline of 12 weeks after entry into the study. With this mode, there has been a seizure reduction of about 43% compared to baseline. 9/10 patients had a 34% reduction in seizure frequency (1).

One study suggested that dogs have the innate sense of sensing their owners’ seizures. In 63 patients, 29 had pet dogs, 9 stated their dogs could sense their seizures (3).

In some studies of skeptical value, there is no proven benefit, although the presence of pseudoseizure may be a factor, meaning neurological symptoms that appear as seizures but are psychogenic in etiology may throw the seizure alert dogs off. Although some studies may indicate lack of benefit, mode of training may play an influence in the detection. The seizure alert dog likely takes cues from the heart rate or olfactory cues to detect seizures (2).

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Downsides to seizure alert dog services

Recipients of service dog must meet certain criteria. This service is usually not covered by medical insurance and patients may avail of this service through assistance programs for a minimal fee.

The service dogs themselves may suffer from stress related to the work required for service. In addition, most dogs train between 6 months and 2 years after which service may be of value for about 7 years. The patient must also forge a bond with their service animal. Becuase it is often not covered by insurance and it may be cost prohibitive, some patients have started training their own dogs for seizure detection. The different levels of training may not be standardized or adequate.

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References

  1. Strong, et al, “Effect of trained seizure alert dogs on the frequency of tonic-clonic seizures,” Seizure, 2002, Sep., 11(6):402-405.
  2. Brown, et al, “Can seizure-alert dogs predict seizures?” Epilepsy Res., 2011, Dec., 97(3):236-242.
  3. Dalziel, et al, “Seizure-alert dogs: a review and preliminary study,” Seizure, 2003, Mar., 12 (2):115-120.
  4. Strong, et al, “Seizure alert dog-fact or fiction?”Seizures, 1999, Feb., 8 (1):62-65.
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Epilepsy

Epilepsy surgery in temporal lobe epilepsy due to mesial temporal sclerosis: the timeline in investigative work-up from the neurologist’s office to the O.R.

Virginia Thornley, M.D. Neurologist, Epileptologist

March 27, 2018

Introduction

Temporal lobe epilepsy is one of the most common types of seizures. The most common cause and one of the most successfully treated causes of temporal lobe epilepsy treated through surgery is mesial temporal sclerosis. This article focuses on mesial temporal sclerosis and does not include discussions of other types of temporal lobe epilepsy due to other causes such as tumors, cystic lesions or head injury or non-lesional temporal lobe epilepsy.  In order to identify a patient, the symptoms are generally stereotypical which suggest localizing towards one focus.  An early age of identification may portend a better outcome since frequent temporal lobe seizures may cause the development of circuitry to the opposite side causing another focus to develop on the opposite temporal lobe. In addition, it is important to control temporal lobe epilepsy because of the location of the seizures are in the hippocampus which is important in memory. Many patients complain of poor memory which will continue to progress should seizures remain poorly controlled. Epilepsy surgery is the definitive treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy in mesial temporal sclerosis.

Identification

To identify an appropriate candidate for surgery, the patient should have stereotypical seizures which localize towards one focus. While the focus may cause contralateral clinical symptoms, automatisms of the limb are generally ipsilateral to the focus.  Once a patient has been identified, further diagnostics tests are needed in order to confirm this focus including a routine electroencephalogram and an ambulatory 48-72 hour EEG which can be performed out-patient. The only downfall with an ambulatory EEG is that it is subject to the artifact, since the electrodes may be displaced causing poor adherence of the electrode to the scalp causing resistance manifested as artifact and a poor recording. However, it is still a good screening test to determine whether there may be a single focus versus multiple regions affected. Temporal lobe epilepsy may be seen with high voltage epileptiform spike and wave. It may be accompanied by focal delta slowing within the temporal lobe, suggesting temporal lobe dysfunction due to recurring seizures. If a patient is deemed an appropriate candidate, a referral may be made to an epilepsy center where more in-depth investigations are performed.

 

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Admission to an epilepsy center

Expect to stay at least 1 week or more in order to allow the capture of typical seizures and to obtain an adequate sampling of ictal periods and pinter-ictal periods during wakefulness and sleep. A team of specialists is involved with the work-up including a clinical epileptologist who manages the medications and clinical aspect, a clinical neurophysiologist who interprets the video EEG monitoring and correlates it with the clinical symptoms, a neuropsychologist who performs the WADA testing and a slew of clinical EEG technicians who ensure that the electrodes are properly attached throughout the hospital stay. In-depth conferences are held to review the studies of the patients and evaluate which patients are suitable epilepsy candidates. Sometimes, multiple admissions are necessary before seizures can be captured.

Hospitalization

During admission, seizures are captured and correlated with the electroencephalographic recordings to determine the focus. More than one focus correlates with a poor outcome, a single focus is necessary. The clinician may provoke seizures by tapering medications safely in the hospital setting. Other techniques include sleep deprivation and encouraging any triggers. The full spectrum of clinical seizures must be captured in order to ensure adequate localization. Bitemporal foci portend a poor outcome.

Neuroimaging

A high-quality MRI of the brain using epilepsy protocol with thin cuts through the temporal lobes of 1.5mm to 2mm is essential. Coronal views are the best way to visualize the hippocampi to evaluate for hippocampal sclerosis which characterizes temporal lobe epilepsy. Usually, the hippocampus affected is much smaller than the contralateral one with hyperintensity on T2. As a result of excessive seizures, burning off of the cells in the hippocampus occurs so that is it is now atrophic. Although an MRI of the brain may have already been obtained pre-work-up, a higher resolution and exceptional quality brain MRI is likely to be repeated. This will serve as the visual point on which the neurosurgeon operates. Seeing a sclerotic hippocampus gives a high correlation with mesial temporal sclerosis.

 

Ictal SPECT

Spectroscopy is obtained in-house, where hexamethylpropylenamine oxime (HMPAO) injection is done 30 minutes before an ictus. When the patient has a seizure, the HMPAO perfuses to the area of interest showing where the seizure localizes. Images are obtained. This test has an added value of further localizing the focus. The drawbacks, however, include not being able to predict when a seizure is about to occur and missing the ictus. It is not unusual for this test to be repeated for it to be meaningful. In addition, it can only be done during office hours so that nocturnal seizure will be missed due to lack of adequate staff.

Magnetoencephalography

This is a costly examination which may not be available in some epilepsy centers. It uses a 3-dimensional modality for localizing the focus. The MEG dipoles are superimposed on the MRI images.

WADA testing

A neuropsychologist examines the patient’s memory and language by temporarily putting the opposite side of the brain to sleep through injection of amobarbital into the internal carotid artery. Short-term memory and language are examined. The neuropsychologist must determine that there is adequate memory on the contralateral temporal lobe for temporal lobe surgery to be successful. If both temporal lobes are impaired in terms of memory, the patient will suffer from poor memory following the surgery. Other tests are done by the neuropsychologist to check for cognition, any personality disorders and assess for evidence of mood disorders.

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Electrocorticography

This is one of the final steps in the investigation where the cranium over the temporal lobe of interest is removed and electrodes are placed directly on top of the cerebrum. Depth electrodes are placed in order to capture epileptiform discharges buried deep inside the hippocampus which cannot be adequately detected by electrodes laying on top of the temporal lobe. The seizures are recorded and a more accurate mapping of the seizure focus is obtained.

Discussions

Once all the appropriate investigations are obtained, if all the data points towards a single focus then the patient is deemed an appropriate candidate. Epilepsy conferences are usually held and reviewed by all the specialists involved in the care. Some patients may proceed directly into surgery after mapping. Others may need to go home and return back for another admission to undergo epilepsy surgery. A patient who is still questionable may need to return for more in-depth recording, this may occur in non-lesional epilepsy where the information is not strong enough to justify surgery. The goal of epilepsy surgery is to resect the dysfunctional epileptogenic zone while preserving the functioning surrounding cortex.

After care

Once the surgery is performed, the patient will need to be on anti-epileptic agents for at least 2 years of seizure freedom. In appropriately investigated patients, a favorable outcome of seizure freedom may reach as high as 60%.

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Epilepsy

The deleterious effect of caffeine on epilepsy and anti-epileptic agents

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist
March 25, 2019
Introduction
Caffeine (1,3,7-methylxantine) is one of the most commonly ingested stimulants in the world. It is not uncommon for someone to ingest a daily consumption of 200mg of caffeine a day. It is ubiquitously found in soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate. It is the bane of every neurologist who treats migraine and patients with insomnia. It acts as a stimulant and many people use it to counter fatigue induced by lack of sleep. Students consume it to stay up at night for late night studying in order to ace their tests the next day. Millions of people ingest caffeine on a regular basis to get through the full work day.
Caffeine worsen seizures
It has been found in animal models to lower the seizure threshold. At low doses, it reduces the efficacy of anti-epileptic agents. At more than 400mg of caffeine per day, in rodent models it is found to induce seizures. In experimental data, use of caffeine is found to lower the seizure threshold. In mouse models, at lower doses below the seizure-inducing effects, it is found to counter the protective beneficial effects of anti-epileptic agents such as carbamazepine, phenytoin, valproate, and phenobarbital as well as newer agents such as topiramate.  There seems to be no effect of caffeine on newer agents such as tiagabine, oxcarbazepine or lamotrigine. There is clinical data confirming that ingesting high doses of caffeine correlates with greater number of seizures.
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Dark cocoa and seizures
Dark chocolate is also found to be a proconvulsant, but little is known about the mechanism of action. Dark chocolate is rich in caffeine. In one mouse study, the effect of high intake of dark chocolate on the susceptibility of hippocampal cells to seizures was examined. Dark cocoa appeared not to affect mood behavior but improved motor coordination.  However, electrophysiologic studies showed enhancement of bursts of epileptogenic potential within the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. There was a reduction in GABA-alpha receptors suggesting that consumption of dark chocolate may alter the synaptic aspect of epileptogenesis in the temporal lobe.
These findings suggest that high consumption of caffeine especially dark cocoa can increase seizure frequency in animal models and in clinical studies. It seems to act as a proconvulsant and reduces receptors that are necessary for inhibiting seizures.
Reference
  1. Chroscinska-Krawzyk, et al, “Caffeine and anticonvulsant potency of anti-epileptic drugs: experimental and clinical data,” Pharmacol. Rep., 2011, 63(1):12-18.
  2. Cicvaric, et al, “Sustained consumption of cocoa-based dark chocolate enhances seizure-like events in the mouse hippocampus,” Food Funct., 2018, Mar., 1, 9(3):1532-1544.
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