Agitation, Oxidative Stress, and Cytokines in Alzheimer Disease: Biomarker Analyses From a Clinical Trial With Nabilone for Agitation

J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol. 2020 Jul;33(4):175-184. doi: 10.1177/0891988719874118. Epub 2019 Sep 23.


The endocannabinoid system has been a target of interest for agitation in Alzheimer disease (AD) because of potential behavioral effects and its potential impact on mechanisms implicated in AD such as oxidative stress (OS) and neuroinflammation. We explored whether serum markers of OS and neuroinflammation were associated with response to the cannabinoid nabilone in agitated patients with AD (N = 38). All participants were enrolled in a 14-week, double-blind, cross-over trial comparing nabilone to placebo (6 weeks each) with a 1-week washout between phases. Samples were collected at the start and end of each phase. The cross-sectional relationship agitation (Cohen Mansfield Agitation Inventory) and OS and inflammatory markers were investigated to select markers of interest. Significant markers were then explored for their relationship with response. The OS marker, 4-hydroxynonenal (4-HNE; F1, 35 = 6.41, P = .016), and the proinflammatory cytokine, tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α; F1, 29 = 3.97, P = .06), were associated with agitation severity, and TNF-α remained significantly associated (F2, 25 = 3.69, P = .04) after adjustment for cognition. In the placebo phase, lower baseline 4-HNE was associated with decreases in agitation severity only (b = 0.01, P = .01), while lower baseline TNF-α was associated with decreases in agitation severity in the nabilone phase only (b = 1.14, P = .045). Changes in 4-HNE were not associated with changes in agitation severity in either phase. In the nabilone phase, lower baseline TNF-α was associated with decreases in agitation severity (b = 1.14, P = .045), and decreases in TNF-α were associated with decreases in agitation severity (b = 1.12, P = .006). These findings suggest that OS and neuroinflammation may be associated with agitation severity, while nabilone may have anti-inflammatory effects.

Keywords: Alzheimer disease; agitation; biomarkers; inflammatory cytokines; oxidative stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications*
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Cytokines / therapeutic use*
  • Dronabinol / analogs & derivatives*
  • Dronabinol / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Agitation / complications
  • Psychomotor Agitation / drug therapy*


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines
  • nabilone
  • Dronabinol

Grant support