As director of the concussion program at the University of Miami, Dr. Gillian Hotz has spent years tracking head injuries of high school athletes. But starting in January, the research professor will see if she and her team can come up with a new way to treat a concussion — possibly with a pill derived from the plant that produces marijuana.

In late October, the university’s The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Miller School of Medicine received a $16 million research grant from Scythian Biosciences to study if a simple pill, among other possible solutions, could reduce post-injury brain cell inflammation, which leads to headaches and other neurological pain.

Researchers believe the answer lies in a cannabinoid derivative of the hemp plant, the plant from which hashish and marijuana, among other hallucinogenic substances, is extracted. The chemical compound the UM researchers will use — CBD — does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the main mind-altering substance found in marijuana.

“I’m excited that this could be a new treatment pathway for the hundreds and thousands of people that have this type of mild brain injuries,” Hotz said.

Hotz said there have been studies that document how cannabinoids have helped treat pain, glaucoma, epilepsy and depression with few side effects. They want to see whether the same applies for sustained brain injuries like concussions.

“It’s not a guy smoking a joint, playing video games anymore. People have to get past that picture. We’re way beyond that,” she said. “(Cannabinoids) can really be helpful for a lot of people that have neurological conditions. It just has to be systematically evaluated.”

Although the compound does not have any hallucinogenic effects, the team will still have to follow strict legal procedures because of the way the government classifies the substance, said Dr. Michael Hoffer, one of the project’s lead principal investigators and a UM otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist).

“Every time you do a research project, there’s going to be obstacles,” said Hoffer, a former U.S. Navy captain who helped develop the technology for concussion-detection goggles that UM has been testing for athletes and for soldiers with head trauma. Hoffer got interested in this research during his two tours of duty in Iraq.

For their research on cannabinoids, the team will need to acquire a special license, double-lock the cannabinoids in a container within a locked room and follow Drug Enforcement Administration regulations about who can access the substance and when.

Hoffer said he’s unsure how the passing of the medical marijuana legislation will impact the study, but he said their research will mostly likely become easier, not harder.

“Given the laws that we just passed, there may be five or six states where it may be easier,” he said. “But we’re not behind like we used to be.”

The team will spend the next three to five years studying whether there is evidence that cannabinoids can treat concussions. The goal is to have a therapeutic treatment at the end.

The researchers will study the compound’s effects on rats and tweak aspects like dosage and timing. Afterward, they will conduct a small human pilot study, likely administering the compounds in pill form to a control group and two groups of patients with traumatic brain injuries, acute and chronic, assessing their cognitive function.

They will then seek FDA-approval of a full-scale clinical trial with hundreds of people to see if the compound is effective as a therapeutic treatment.

Though Hotz said she’s not sure if the product will be a pill, vapor or something else, she said she’s confident her team will benefit from the research.

“We’re going to find something,” Hotz said. “I think we’re going to see a positive way before we’re going to see any negative.”

Cresonia Hsieh: @CresoniaHsieh
Special to the Miami Herald

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