Schizophrenia is a chronic mental illness that typically requires long-term treatment with potent antipsychotic medications. But for about one-third of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, conventional antipsychotics fail to provide adequate control of their symptoms. However, recent research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in the cannabis plant, may be as effective as antipsychotic drugs in relieving many of the negative symptoms of this mysterious disorder — without the often-serious side effects these medications can cause.
Schizophrenia: Dysfunctional Thinking and Distorted Reality
Schizophrenia1 is one of several mental health conditions classified as “severe” — a fixed set of behaviors and thinking patterns that can persist throughout life. The causes of schizophrenia are unclear, but research suggests that factors ranging from genetic tendencies to birth trauma and early childhood experiences could play a role.
What is known, however, is that the symptoms of schizophrenia2 appear to arise from imbalances in the brain’s pathways for the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate, as well as anandamide, a little-known chemical responsible for regulating responses to stress. Those symptoms fall into three distinct groups, although not everyone with schizophrenia experiences them all, or in the same way.
Positive symptoms of schizophrenia are those psychotic behaviors that most dramatically characterize the illness: hallucinations, delusions, and distorted thinking patterns. Movement disorders, such as excited body movements or inappropriate gestures, can also be a positive symptom.
Negative symptoms include those that arise out of disruptions or distortions in normal behaviors and emotions. While the positive symptoms of schizophrenia are those that aren’t seen in healthy people, the negative symptoms reflect inappropriateness in responses that everyone has.
People with schizophrenia may also have a “flat” affect — a reduced expression of emotion, or a lack of pleasure in daily life. They may not speak much or have trouble starting or carrying through with activities. Cognitive symptoms include problems with understanding information and making decisions, memory, or paying attention.
Because the causes of schizophrenia aren’t well understood, treatment focuses on managing symptoms, usually with medications such as Thorazine, Haldol, or Risperdal. But these drugs can cause severe side effects including seizures and suicidal thoughts — and most people must continue taking them indefinitely. CBD could change that.
CBD – The New Wonder Drug?
Research3 on the medical applications of the more than 80 compounds found in the cannabis (better known as marijuana) plant in recent years has been focused heavily on CBD. Unlike THC, the compound responsible for marijuana’s famous “high,” CBD is a non-psychotic cannabinoid that may fight inflammation, decrease anxiety, reduce pain, and protect neurological functioning.
Several studies have examined the potential of CBD to improve cognitive functioning lost to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or other neurological conditions. But a team of researchers4 in Australia have found new evidence that CBD could also help with the cognitive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
Using a rodent model of schizophrenia, researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute have found5 that CBD can restore memory, recognition, and even deficits in social behavior caused by schizophrenia — aspects of the condition that traditional antipsychotic drugs don’t typically address. Not only that, but the Illawarra researchers also found that CBD caused no severe, adverse side effects.
The findings of the Illawarra team are among the latest in a growing body of research into the applications of CBD for schizophrenia and similar illnesses. For example, a 2012 study6 conducted at the University of Cologne in Germany found that CBD performed as well as traditional antipsychotics in controlling negative — and even some positive — symptoms in a study group of people diagnosed with schizophrenia.
How Does CBD Help Schizophrenia Symptoms?
Scientists and health professionals have long known that for many people with schizophrenia, smoking marijuana can make symptoms worse. The presence of THC, the compound responsible for the “high” of smoking pot, can even trigger psychotic episodes. But CBD appears to have the opposite effect7, calming psychosis and keeping new episodes at bay.
The human body has an array of cannabinoid receptors — cells that respond to the presence of cannabinoids. Cannabis compounds bind to these receptors, causing feelings of relaxation and euphoria. But for people with schizophrenia, the picture becomes more complicated8 thanks to the presence of anandamide, an essential part of the body’s stress management system.
This little-known chemical is the signaling molecule for the “flight or fight” stress response, and for stress analgesia — the temporary inability to feel pain in highly stressful situations. People with schizophrenia have high levels of this chemical, and when they use marijuana, THC makes it harder for anandamide to keep those systems regulated. But CBD appears to prevent the brain’s supply of anandamide from being depleted or inhibited so that it can exert its own antipsychotic, calming effect.
CBD – An Alternative to Antipsychotic Drugs?
Studies like the ones done in Illawarra and Cologne are revealing new evidence of CBD’s potential for helping people with schizophrenia, but for now, that research relies on animal models and small-scale study groups. Still, it’s clear that this new research on CBD’s effect on memory and cognition could lead to a new era of less harmful and more effective medications to control the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
1 National Institutes of Mental Health.
NIMH Health Topics. “What is schizophrenia?”
2 Mental Health America.
MHA Conditions. “What is schizophrenia?”
3 Butterfield, Delilah. 26 July 2016.
Herb. “Everything you need to know about cannabidiol.”
4 IHMRI. 4 Jun 2017.
Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute. Cannabis compound has potential to unlock new cognitive treatment for schizophrenia.
5 McIlwain, Kate. 4 Jun 2017.
Illawarra Mercury. “Cannabis compound could hold the key to better schizophrenia treatment: UOW”
6 Szalavitz, Maia. 30 May 2012.
Time Healthland. “Marijuana compound treats schizophrenia with few side effects: clinical trial.”
7 CD Schubert et al. 1 May 2017.
Schizophrenia Research. Cannabis with high cannabidiol content is associated with fewer psychotic experiences.
8 S Deiana, 25 Oct 2012.
Drug Testing and Analysis. Cannabis: Cannabidiol: a new light for schizophrenia?