Medical cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) have taken the media by storm in recent years, with a growing body of research emerging about the potential benefit of these plant-based therapies.
For example, research suggests that cannabis may help with symptoms relating to chronic pain, nausea, lack of appetite, sleep disorders, seizures, and more. But can cannabis and CBD treat autism? There’s been some recent news stories on the topic as of late, but is the use of marijuana for autism credible in a clinical sense?
Believe it or not, there actually are a handful of credible academic publications on the use of marijuana for autism. Additionally, Israeli researchers are conducting an ongoing investigation on the potential effects of CBD for autism spectrum disorder. Let’s take a closer look at some of the details.
What Is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), more commonly known as autism, is a neurodevelopmental condition that is typically diagnosed in early childhood. As a spectrum disorder, ASD has a wide range of symptoms; rarely are two people with autism affected in precisely the same way.
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 and outbursts
- Repetition of actions, words, or phrases
- Abnormal sensory perception
Children with autism are considered more likely to suffer from learning disabilities and psychological issues, including things like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. Many children with autism also suffer from epilepsy and seizures.
It is unclear exactly what causes individuals to develop ASD, but it is likely due to a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is little evidence that upbringing, diet, or vaccines play a role.
Current Treatment of Autism
There is currently no known cure for ASD. Treatments do exist, but rather than working to reverse the condition itself; they are geared more towards reducing the severity of symptoms and improving the quality of life for autistic patients and their families.
Developing an effective treatment plan for autism typically involves consultations with pediatricians, speech and language therapists, behavioral health experts, occupational therapists, specialist educators, and social care workers.
As far as medication, there are prescriptions that may work 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 achieving a proper balance that limits the potential of adverse side effects. In many patients, conventional medicine is ineffective and/or problematic in terms of contraindication. This is leading researchers – as well as autism patients and their families – to seek out the possibility of new, alternative autism treatments.
Can Cannabis and CBD Treat Autism?
Much of the current evidence on cannabis and CBD for autism is anecdotal. For example, it’s quite easy to go online and find articles from patients or patient family members claiming that marijuana is a cure for autism.
While these reports can be positive and provide hope, they offer little in terms of reliable clinical evidence on the effects of marijuana and CBD for autism.
Nevertheless, increased exposure on the topic has galvanized some researchers into investigating the practical effects of cannabis-based therapy on ASD.
Research on Cannabis as a Potential Treatment Option for Autism
One such researcher is Dr. Adi Aran, Director of Pediatric Neurology at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. Dr. Aran first recognized the potential of cannabis and CBD for treating autism in light of prior research that was conducted on the effects of cannabinoids for epilepsy.
Based on data suggesting that cannabis compounds are effective in treating ASD-related seizures, Dr. Aran designed his own small-scale study on CBD-based medical cannabis for children with autism. The study, published in the academic journal Neurology, included 60 ASD patients with an average age of 12 years. The patients had not seen any improvements in their condition using conventional treatment methods.
Dr. Aran’s participants were treated with CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at a ratio of 20:1, having their dosage gradually increased to a daily maximum of 10mg of CBD per kilogram of body weight.
Behavioral and communication components (including symptoms such as anxiety) were assessed both before and after the cannabis treatment period. Results were overwhelmingly positive, with 61% of patients experiencing a significant improvement in behavioral ASD outbreaks. A further 47% of patients experienced improvements in communication, while 39% experienced improvements in anxiety symptoms. There was also a 29% improvement in disruptive behavior following the high dose CBD/THC treatment.
Furthermore, in addition to the benefits of CBD for the ASD patients themselves, the study results also observed the positive effect of CBD on 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
Results of this groundbreaking Israeli study were so promising that a similar trial is now in the works, this time with twice as many participants. The study (linked above) is a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in which participants will take either CBD oil or flavored olive oil for a period of 12 weeks. Subjects will then undergo a four-week detox prior to starting a second round of CBD and placebo treatments, for a further 12 weeks.
Neither the participants, the parents, nor the researchers will know who is taking the CBD and who is taking the placebo. This double-blind method is considered the gold standard for clinical trials, meaning results should leave little doubt as to whether cannabis and CBD can effectively treat autism.
Are Cannabis and CBD Safe for Children with Autism?
There is an ongoing debate about the safety of cannabis use in young people, with several publications citing the potential for cannabinoids to affect brain development. It has been suggested that adolescents who regularly use marijuana 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 ECS and Autism
The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, exists in all mammals. It is made up of receptors and chemicals known as endocannabinoids, which affect the body in a similar way to the cannabinoids found in cannabis.
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.
Based on reports that propose an irregular ECS in autism patients, at least one study suggests that “the [potential] of CBD to impact the symptoms and comorbidities affecting individuals with ASD is significant.”
Of course, any long-term effects of cannabis and CBD on autistic children are still unclear.
However, the Israeli study referenced above found that few of their 60 participants experienced adverse effects from CBD treatment. The most commonly reported side effect was sleep disturbance, which affected just 14% of participants. A further 9% suffered from increased irritability, while 9% experienced a loss of appetite.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that the study chose to use a high CBD-to-THC ratio for its subjects. Given the intoxicating and mind-altering nature of THC, a high-THC cannabis medication for autistic children would not be practical in a clinical sense. CBD, on the other hand, does not boast intoxicating effects.
In a phenomenon known as the entourage effect, however, there are suggestions that small amounts of THC can optimize the pharmacological activity of CBD. Achieving an effective balance between these two compounds would be key, especially in terms of prescribing a cannabis or CBD treatment for young children.
Always speak with a doctor before giving any sort of cannabis or CBD treatment to a child. Medical cannabis is an option for children with qualifying conditions in some states, but this is strictly based on patient-by-patient doctor evaluation.
Final Thoughts: Can Cannabis and CBD Treat Autism?
Research on cannabis and CBD for autism is still in its early stages. So far, however, evidence shows great promise. Further studies are already in development, and these should help to confirm whether cannabis and CBD can be beneficial for autism and its associated symptoms.
That said, it’s important to remember that there is little data on the long-term effects of cannabis and CBD on children with autism. Current research suggests that CBD may help to improve behavior, communication, and anxiety with a low risk of adverse effects, but much more research is needed.
If you have a child with ASD and would like to try cannabis or CBD, it is essential to talk to your physician first. A doctor should be able to advise you on the most appropriate dosage for your child and discuss how to incorporate a cannabis-based therapy into your daily routine safely.