Einstein and Montefiore Researchers Awarded $7.6 Million to Study Depression and Cannabis Use in HIV Patients
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System two five-year grants totaling $7.6 million to study the structural and chemical changes in the brains of people with depression, HIV and cannabis use disorder.
The first research project, funded by a $4 million grant, will see researchers study 280 patients between the ages of 18-34 who are living with HIV, with some of the participants suffering from depression and regularly using cannabis. Using neuroimaging, researchers will study brain circuitry to better understand how cannabis affects the reward centers of the brain in patients with depression.
“Our collaborative project involves experts in depression, HIV, addiction medicine, and neuroimaging, who will investigate the role of neural mechanisms to learn about the connection between cannabis use and depression in people living with HIV,” said Dr. Vilma Gabbay, M.D., M.S. and co-director of the Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore Einstein. “We hope to identify specific biomarkers of depression and develop better treatments.”
The second research project will study how the immune system, brain circuitry and neurochemicals interact in patients living with HIV. The researchers at Einstein and Montefiore believe when the central nervous system becomes inflamed due to HIV, levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter known to have a calming effect, are reduced. The changes in neurochemicals is believed to cause depression.
“If we can confirm that this chain of events leads to depression, we may be able to devise treatment strategies that can ward off depression in people infected by HIV, perhaps by inhibiting the inflammatory proteins that accompany HIV infection,” Dr. Gabbay said.
For the second research project, 300 people living with and without HIV will be recruited for the study. Participants will be tested for anxiety or depression, past psychiatric trauma, HIV treatment and levels of CD4+ T cells, which are typically affected by HIV infection. Tests will be repeated after six and 12 months.
A recent study found cannabis shows promise as a potential treatment for anxiety and depression. Researchers recruited 538 patients, 368 medical cannabis users and 170 who didn’t, and asked them to complete an online survey where they self-reported their experiences with anxiety and depression and the effects the conditions have on their lives.
Results showed the medical cannabis users had less severe depressive symptoms and greater quality of life, better sleep and less pain than those who didn’t use cannabis. The researchers noted patients who used CBD products were even more likely to report the positive effects, while also noting THC products were not associated with improvements to depression. Researchers also found there was no link between medical cannabis use and changes in a patient’s anxiety levels.
In 2017, the NIH awarded a five-year $3.8 million grant to Albert Einstein College and Montefiore researchers to test whether medical cannabis can help reduce the use of opioids among adults for chronic pain, including patients with HIV. Montefiore mentioned chronic pain and opioid use is more common among HIV patients, with 25 to 90 percent of HIV patients reporting chronic pain. Researchers mentioned at the time there hadn’t been any studies that see if medical cannabis use over time can reduce the use of opioids.
Another study conducted in 2020 found depressed people were twice as likely to use cannabis in the last month and three times more likely to use it daily. The study analyzed responses from two periods, 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, and found a depressed person is 2.3 times more likely to report any cannabis use in the 2015-2016 timeframe, a nearly threefold increase than the previous decade.