Can Medical Marijuana Help Individuals with Autism?
While people with autism in New Jersey may take medical marijuana to treat other conditions (such as seizures/epilepsy), autism alone is not currently an approved medical condition under the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Program because benefit has not been scientifically demonstrated. Several other states are on a growing list of those that do authorize medical marijuana for autism treatment.
Under New Jersey’s program, marijuana is approved to treat a variety of other physical and mental health conditions, including chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, Tourette’s Syndrome, migraine, anxiety, opioid-use disorder, and inflammatory bowel disease. It is also approved for conditions such as seizure disorder and PTSD when a person’s condition is resistant to or they are intolerant of conventional treatment.
Marijuana is used for medical and recreational purposes for the effects of cannabinoids, chemical compounds within the plant that produce the effects associated with marijuana. There are more than 100 cannabinoids, the most prevalent being Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). THC is psychoactive and is known as the chemical within marijuana that creates a “high.” CBD is non-psychoactive but produces other effects within the body.
Increasing Interest in Cannabis as Treatment for Autism
Interest in cannabis as a treatment for autism came about in part following research studies in Israel of the effectiveness of CBD for the treatment of epilepsy. Although the evidence has been only anecdotal, parents whose children were being treated with CBD with an additional diagnosis of autism reported seeing improvements in their children’s behavior. Empirical studies are needed to establish a clear connection between CBD and behavior changes.
Several Israeli researchers conducted a follow-up study to further evaluate cannabis treatment for the symptoms of autism. A report describing the study’s results was published in January 2019 in the online journal, Scientific Reports. Among the symptoms that medical marijuana is purported to improve are seizures, tics, “rage attacks,” and restlessness. However, the researchers cautioned that the study could not definitely show that cannabis treatment led to improvement of symptoms, and stated: “While this study suggests that cannabis treatment is safe and can improve ASD symptoms and improve ASD patient’s quality of life, we believe that double-blind placebo-controlled trials are crucial for a better understanding of the cannabis effect on ASD patients.”
While Israel has been leading the research, a controlled study is currently underway in the United States. A clinical trial under the direction of Dr. Eric Hollander at Montefiore Medical Center in New York began in April 2019, and is expected to be completed in September 2021. The study, Cannabidivarin (CBDV) vs. Placebo in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and is the first clinical trial of its kind in the United States.
A 2018 Newsweek article exploring the research in Israel and describing some families’ experiences summarizes the scope and intent of Hollander’s study:
“Hollander’s patients are receiving a treatment that contains neither THC [a psychoactive component of some strains of marijuana that produces a “high”] nor CBD. They will receive pure cannabidivarin, or CBDV, a cannabinoid derived from the cannabis plant that is very similar in chemical makeup to CBD. It also has a similar track record to CBD in terms of medical application. In studies among patients with epilepsy, CBDV has also been effective in reducing seizures.
The U.S. Department of Defense is funding Hollander’s study. After realizing that military families with autistic children struggle with relocation and placement in remote locations, the department began an active program on autism research. A cannabis grower based in London is providing the drug, administered in capsule form. The goal of his study is to see if CBDV alone can combat the core symptoms of autism.”
The results of the U.S. study are still pending and research has yet to establish effectiveness for autism. We recommend those considering medical marijuana to proceed with caution.
As with other treatments that need additional research, Autism New Jersey encourages families to consult with their son or daughter’s treating physician to discuss the potential benefits and risks.
For medical professionals and others, we suggest reviewing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ article: Ethical Implications for Providers Regarding Cannabis Use in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Cannabis: A plant that contains two species, hemp and marijuana.
Cannabinoids: Chemicals contained in cannabis. There are more than 100, including two used as key ingredients for medical or therapeutic purposes, CBD and THC.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is “non-psychoactive.” It does not alter mood, awareness or behavior.
THC is “psychoactive” and produces the “high” people feel when they smoke marijuana or eat foods containing it.
80% of Children With Autism See Improvement with CBD
Israeli researchers have found compelling evidence that medical cannabis is an effective therapy for children on the autism spectrum.
The Study Up-Close
The study was led by the director of pediatric neurology at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital, Dr. Adi Aran, who treated the 60 children with a high-CBD cannabis oil (20% CBD and 1% THC). The children were treated for at least seven months with the oil. After the treatment period, parents answered assessment questionnaires to characterize their child’s condition. Questions were asked about behavioral changes, anxiety levels and ability to communicate. Here’s what they reported:
- 80% of parents noted a decrease in problematic behaviors, with 62% reporting significant improvements.
- Half of the children had improved communication.
- 40% reported significant decreases in anxiety. (Note: one-third of the study participants began the study with no anxiety.)
Just as Israel is a pioneer in medical cannabis research, Aran is a pioneer in cannabinoid therapy for autism. Aran originally began a 2017 project to test 120 autistic children. It was the first study of its kind worldwide, and was made possible by the Israeli government’s funding and progressive approach to cannabis research.
Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental in nature, usually appearing in infancy or early childhood and lasting a lifetime. More severe cases have debilitating symptoms including compulsive, repetitive behaviors and impaired social skills and communication. Some children cannot speak at all. Autism affects around 1% of people worldwide.
The causes of autism are not understood and there is no cure—and the prevalence is climbing. In April 2018, the CDC updated its autism prevalence estimates to 1 in 59 children, up from 1 in 166 children in 2004. Doctors traditionally treat symptoms with antipsychotic medications, which have harmful side effects. Some children do not respond to these medications.
Aran began small autism research studies after similar cannabis studies on epilepsy, a disease that affects about 20% of autistic children. While studying epilepsy, researchers discovered that certain cannabis compounds would likely also help some autism symptoms. Less than 2% of the general population has epilepsy, but up to 33% of people with autism also suffer from epilepsy.
Cannabis may help relieve Autism symptoms, Israeli study shows
Researchers record sharp improvement in measures such as quality of life, ability to dress and shower independently after 6 months of cannabis oil treatment
Medical cannabis has been found to ease the symptoms of Autism in children, with few side effects, according to an Israeli study published in Nature.
The joint study conducted by Ben Gurion University and Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba showed that cannabis oil was an effective treatment for a variety of Autism-related symptoms including seizures, tics, depression, restlessness and rage attacks for patients under the age of 18.
The study found that after six months of regular consumption, 30 percent of patients reported significant improvement, 53.7% reported moderate improvement and only 15% had slight or no change.
“Overall, more than 80% of the parents reported significant or moderate improvement in their child,” co-author Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider said in a statement.
The team analyzed the data collected as part of the treatment program of 188 teens diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) between 2015 and 2017 in order to examine a change in quality of life, mood and ability to perform daily tasks before and after treatment.
Following the treatment, 66.8% of patients reported having a good quality of life, more than double the 31.3% who reported so before hand, while 63.5% said they had a positive mood after the six months, up from 42%.
Furthermore, 42.9% of patients were able to dress and shower independently after the treatment, an improvement from 26.4%, and 24.7% reported having good sleep and 14% good concentration following the study, up from 3.3% and 0% respectively.
In the majority of the cases, the treatment consisted of cannabis oil containing 30% cannabidiol oil (CBD) and 1.5% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Unlike THC, CBD is a non psychoactive compound found in the marijuana plant.
“While this study suggest that cannabis treatment is safe and can improve ASD symptoms and improve ASD patient’s quality of life, we believe that double blind placebo-controlled trials are crucial for a better understanding of the cannabis effect on ASD patients,” said Dr. Victor Novak, another of the study’s authors.
CBD has recently been gaining in popularity for its proclaimed wellness benefits, though there has been limited scientific research on its use and long-term effects.
Proponents say CBD offers a plethora of health benefits, from relieving pain to taming anxiety.
The US National Institutes of Health database shows at least 100 studies across the world involving CBD that are either recruiting subjects or active.
AP contributed to this report.
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