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Researchers at the University of Sydney Explore CBD Treatment for Spinal Injuries

September 18, 2020 11:34 am ET
Researchers at the University of Sydney Explore CBD Treatment for Spinal Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are associated with pain (which can be chronic), loss of muscle function, loss of autonomic function as well as the loss of sensation. Depending on the location and severity, the symptoms may vary from numbness to paralysis which can be temporary or permanent. There is also an array of complications that accompanies spinal cord injuries such as muscle atrophy, infections, and breathing problems. Conventional forms of treatment are often accompanied by adverse side effects but there is hope for effective treatment with fewer side effects. 

Research Team to Study the Impact of CBD on Spinal Injury Pain

Lambert Initiative experts have won $1.7 million of NWS Health funding for their Cannabinoid Therapeutics and Brain and Mind Centre to see if cannabidiol can be that effective treatment for spinal cord injury. Professor Luke Henderson is set to be the study’s lead investigator and he explains that the unfortunate truth for more than half of spinal cord injury patients is the development of chronic pain. It can be so severe that many people regard it as the most debilitating consequence of their injury. 

Along with the $1.7 million they have won as funding, the team also received $350,000 from The University of Sydney, which is the university where the professor works. The professor explains that the need to explore cannabis as a treatment option for spinal cord injury arises from the fact that current treatment options have proven rather ineffective and they often bring on an array of side effects that exacerbates the injury. The study aims to make use of advanced brain imaging techniques in order to identify and understand the changes occurring in the brain after the individual has suffered from a spinal injury. By looking at the changes in the brain, the team of researchers will be able to identify the development of chronic neuropathic pain. Additionally, the team will then be able to identify and develop targeted and effective treatment options for the injury/condition. 

The professor has teamed up with cannabinoid, neuroinflammation, and spinal cord injury experts in order to successfully pull off this study. The professor himself is an expert in human brain imaging and pain and he hopes to test the hypothesis that cannabidiol (CBD) can serve as an effective treatment option alongside his team. The team includes Professor Iain McGregor, Dr. Elizabeth Cairns, and Dr. Sachin Shetty. Professor McGregor is currently an NHMRC principal research fellow, a professor of psychopharmacology, and the academic director of the Lambert Initiative for cannabinoid therapeutics. Dr. Carins is a postdoctoral researcher who completed her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Neuroscience and she has written extensively about the endocannabinoid system. Dr. Shetty is a rehabilitation and pain physician working at the Prince of Wales Public and Private Hospital in Randwick with an interest in spinal injuries and regional pain. Professor Henderson explained,

“We will be able to explore for the first time, the effects of CBD on brain function in chronic pain and our ability to determine the relationship between changes in pain and brain structure and function associated with CBD”. 

Chronic pain is common, expensive, and challenging to treat, which is why many individuals have turned to cannabis. Alternative medication for pain management includes pharmaceutical opioid-based pain killers, which can lead to addiction and dependency. Cannabis and opioids are both analgesics that block pain signals in the brain and central nervous system by binding to the receptors located in the endocannabinoid system.  A study conducted by Oxford researchers explained that cannabis does not kill pain as much as it makes it the pain more bearable. In other words, cannabis affects the emotional reaction and not the pain itself. However, we do not know enough about how cannabis works in the body as well as how it interacts with pain in our bodies. The bottom line is that there is enough research to support that cannabis makes the pain more manageable (even if most of the evidence is anecdotal) and now, the study to be conducted by Professor Henderson stands to provide more concrete evidence. 

The Study’s Plan

The team of researchers and professionals plan on conducting clinical trials which will administer CBD to patients with spinal cord injury-included pain to determine whether the cannabinoid can reduce their pain. The team will first compare the brain imaging of those who have developed chronic pain after spinal cord injury to those who have not. By doing this, they will be able to establish what is responsible for the development of chronic pain. 

The second part of the study involves a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study that will be used to investigate CBD’s ability to reduce pain. Professor Henderson stated that “while there are some studies showing that CBD can reduce pain in other chronic conditions, no one fully understands how it works to reduce pain. Our study can help tease this out”. The study will be conducted at the Prince of Wales Hospital, NeuRA, and the University of Sydney and it is set to take place over four years with the first of the trials set to begin at the start of 2021. The team is still in the process of recruiting participants and if you are interested or know of anyone who is interested, the team has advised that you register your interest by contacting Professor Henderson by phone or by email which can be found on the University’s website.

Professor McGregor said that “the Lambert Initiative is committed to working in areas of unmet need and severe suffering. Supporting spinal injury patients with cannabis-based medicines provides an opportunity to do exactly that”.  The team hopes that they will be able to make real impacts on the patients and their families by paving the way for effective treatment. 

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