Medical cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) have taken the media by storm in recent years, with more and more research continually emerging about these natural therapies’ potential benefits.
Marijuana is thought to help with a whole host of medical conditions including chronic pain, nausea and vomiting, weight loss, sleep disorders, anxiety, and seizures. But can cannabis and CBD treat autism? This is the exact question that Israeli researchers are trying to figure out the answer to in a first-of-its-kind study on CBD and autism.
What is Autism?
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), more commonly just known as autism, is a neurodevelopmental condition which is typically diagnosed in early childhood. As a spectrum disorder, ASD has a wide range of symptoms, and no two people with autism will be affected in precisely the same way.
The most common symptoms of autism include:
- Delayed speech and language development
- Difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication
- Difficulty with social interactions
- Behavioral problems such as compulsive behavior or outbursts
- Repetition of actions, words, or phrases
- Abnormal sensory perception
Children with autism are also considered more likely to suffer from learning disabilities and psychological issues such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression. Many children with autism also suffer from epilepsy and seizures.
It is unclear exactly what causes some children to develop ASD, but it is thought to be due to a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is no evidence that upbringing, diet, or vaccines play a role.
Current Treatment of Autism
There is currently no known cure for ASD, and treatments are geared towards reducing the severity of symptoms and improving quality of life for autistic patients and their families.
The treatment of autism can be a long and complicated process involving pediatricians, speech and language therapists, mental health teams, occupational therapists, education, and social care.
Medication can be prescribed to treat some of the symptoms of autism. For example, antipsychotic drugs may be used to improve behavioral issues, and antidepressants can be used for symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
The problem with these medications is that it can be challenging to get the balance right, and side effects are always a possibility. In some patients, conventional medicines are completely ineffective, and this had led researchers to seek out new, alternative treatments for autism.
Can Cannabis and CBD Treat Autism?
Most of the current evidence on cannabis and CBD for autism is anecdotal, coming from case studies or reports from individual families. While these people may be convinced of the beneficial effects of marijuana and CBD for autism, there is a lack of real scientific evidence to support their views.
Cannabis and CBD are receiving more attention than ever for their potential medicinal benefits.
This increased exposure means that there is a genuine need for researchers to step up to the plate and provide high-quality studies to confirm whether these therapies can help in the treatment of conditions like autism.
One such researcher is Dr. Adi Aran, the director of pediatric neurology at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. He first recognized the potential of cannabis and CBD for treating autism in the light of previous research on the effects of cannabinoids on epilepsy. The positive results of these studies has led scientists to believe that the compounds in cannabis which help seizures could help with the symptoms of ASD too.
Following these suggestions, Dr. Aran went on to design his own, small-scale study on CBD based medical marijuana for children with autism, published in the journal Neurology. The study included 60 patients with ASD, with an average age of 12 years. The patients had not seen any improvements in their condition with conventional treatment methods.
The participants were treated with CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at a ratio of 20:1, having their dosage gradually increased to a maximum of 10mg CBD per kilogram per day.
The participants’ behavior, communication, and symptoms such as anxiety were assessed both before and after the treatment period. The results were overwhelmingly positive, with 61% of patients experiencing significant improvement in behavioral outbreaks. A further 47% patients experienced improvements in communication, and 39% experienced improvements in anxiety symptoms. There was also a 29% improvement in disruptive behavior following treatment with CBD.
Moreover, the patients were not the only ones to benefit from the study. The positive effects of CBD extended to the children’s parents, who reported 33% less stress by the end of the trial.
The Future of Research on Cannabis and CBD for Autism
The results of the initial Israeli study were so promising, that a similar trial is already in the pipeline, this time with twice as many participants. This study will be a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, in which the participants will take either CBD oil or flavored olive oil for a period of 12 weeks. They will then undergo a four-week washout, before starting the second batch of CBD or placebo for a further 12 weeks.
Neither the participants, the parents, nor the researchers will know who is taking the genuine CBD and who is taking the placebo. This double-blind method is considered the gold standard for clinical trials, meaning that the results should leave no doubt as to whether cannabis and CBD can effectively treat autism.
Are Cannabis and CBD Safe for Children with Autism?
There has been a long-lasting debate about the safety of cannabis use in young people, with experts voicing concerns about how cannabinoids could potentially affect the still-developing brain. It has been suggested that people who regularly use marijuana as adolescents are at higher risk of developing psychological problems later in life.
Scientists do not yet fully understand why this is the case, but animal studies suggest that it could be due to the role of the endocannabinoid system in neurological development.
The endocannabinoid system exists in all mammals. It is made up of receptors and chemicals known as endocannabinoids, which affect the body in a very similar way to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.
The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in many of our biological functions. It appears that this includes the development of our brains and nervous systems both prenatally and throughout childhood and adolescence.
Researchers have found that mice with a rare gene mutation linked to autism have altered endocannabinoid activity in their central nervous systems. This finding goes some way towards explaining how cannabis and CBD could be used to treat autism.
The long-term effects of cannabis and CBD on autistic children are still unclear. However, the Israeli study found that few of their 60 participants experienced adverse effects from their treatment. The most commonly reported side effect was sleep disturbance, which affected just 14% of the participants. A further 9% suffered from increased irritability, and 9% experienced a loss of appetite.
It is no coincidence that this study chose to use a high CBD to THC ratio for its subjects. CBD is the cannabinoid associated with most of the medicinal effects of cannabis, while THC is responsible for its psychoactive effects. A small amount of THC is thought to increase the action of CBD and enhance its effects, in a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect.” However, getting the balance between these two compounds right is key, especially when prescribing for young children.
Autism is currently listed as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in several states, but if more positive evidence emerges, this could be set to rise. As it stands, medical cannabis is only recommended as a last resort for children with autism, but many desperate parents are willing to take a chance, especially when all else has failed.
Final Thoughts: Can Cannabis and CBD Treat Autism?
Research on cannabis and CBD for autism is still in its early stages, but so far it is showing great promise. Further studies are already in development, and these should help to confirm whether cannabis and CBD can effectively treat autism and teach us more about its safety.
The long-term effects of cannabis and CBD on children with autism are not yet apparent, but in the short term at least, they appear to be both safe and effective. Current research suggests that CBD may help to improve behavior, communication, and anxiety, with a low risk of adverse effects. These findings could offer a much needed ray of hope for the parents and carers of children with this difficult-to-treat disorder.
If you look after a child with ASD and would like to try cannabis or CBD, it is essential to talk to your physician first. They should be able to advise you on the most appropriate dosage for your child and discuss how to safely incorporate this therapy into your daily routine.