Multiple sclerosis sufferers were offered a glimmer of hope yesterday by research suggesting cannabis can help to slow the disease.

Multiple sclerosis sufferers were offered a glimmer of hope yesterday by research suggesting cannabis can help to slow the disease.

A one-year study at the Devon-based Peninsula Medical School has found that taking tablets containing tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), the chemical that causes a cannabis "high", can ease symptoms of advanced MS. The chemical appears to slow the nerve death that leads to progressive symptoms.

Last year, a 15-week study of the effects on MS patients proved inconclusive. But Dr John Zajicek told the British Association Science Festival in Exeter there was "evidence of benefits in the longer term that didn't emerge in the earlier study".

Further research was needed, he added, before making an unequivocal recommendation that THC should be prescribed for MS patients. That could take three years. Even so, the NHS is expected to analyse the new results to decide whether to begin prescribing it.

In the initial study, 667 people were given a non-active placebo, THC, or whole extract from cannabis, the last to counter arguments that trace extracts from the plant might have actions THC does not, Dr Zajicek said.

THC seems to reduce the action of neurotransmitters in the brain, which restricts communication between nerve cells, and that, in turn, appears to ease symptoms.

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years to ease symptoms of illnesses; Queen Victoria smoked it to ease period pains. In the US, a THC extract is used in treating pain suffered by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

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