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Cannabis and Autism

There are several studies that support the medicinal properties of cannabis. For instance, a 2016 study showed that cannabis can reduce the frequency and, in some cases, even completely prevent migraine attacks. Studies have also been conducted on the effectiveness of cannabis in treating and managing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), epilepsy and other seizure disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and peripheral neuropathy. And of course, who can dismiss the increasing amount of evidence that cannabis is as effective as common prescription drugs in managing pain.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that scientists have also begun to study cannabis as a treatment for another disorder: autism. Unlike other diseases, such as ALS or Parkinson’s, however, it is much more difficult to study the effect of cannabis to autism patients. This is because doctors cannot freely prescribe cannabis-based treatments due to lack of supporting data; at the same time, it’s difficult to conduct research about using cannabis as a treatment for autism because of fear. After all, most medical establishments wouldn’t want to test the effects of cannabinoids such as THC on young children.

Braving the Odds: Research on Cannabis and Autism

Despite the overwhelming challenge, some researchers have pursued studies about cannabis and its potential in treating autism. The results, fortunately, look promising. Two such studies were conducted in 2013. One was conducted by Dr. Dario Siniscalco and his colleagues, who found some indications that the CB2 receptor in the human body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a potential therapeutic target for autism medication to help manage symptoms. On the other hand, a collaborative study between the Second University of Naples and Stanford University Medical School discovered that alterations in the normal synaptic mechanism of endocannabinoids may actually contribute to autism.

Meanwhile, a 2012 study conducted by researchers from UC Irvine and the French national research agency INSERM found that 2-AG, an endocannabinoid transmitter that occurs in the brain, can help manage behavioral issues in patients with fragile X syndrome. Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental problems like cognitive impairment, is the most common identified genetic cause of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The researchers discovered that 2-AG transmitters facilitate the efficient transport of synaptic signals — something that people with fragile X syndrome lack dramatically.

More recently, a group of researchers explored the role of the ECS in regulating neuroinflammation, a major contributor in developing ASD. According to the study, modulating activity in the ECS through the consumption of cannabis may be able to prevent or delay the progression of ASD.

Finally, in what may be considered as one of the boldest moves in cannabis research, Israel began clinical trials that study the effects of cannabis on children with autism in January 2017. Israel is a pioneer in this regard, which perhaps should not come as a surprise as it is one of the first countries to allow the use of medical marijuana in 1992. The Middle Eastern country is also among the only three nations — along with Canada and the Netherlands — that have a government-sponsored medical marijuana program.

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Anecdotal Evidence and Serendipitous Discoveries

While there is still a big space to be filled with regards to scientific proof, there are several anecdotes about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating autism. One of the most popular and most recent is from Thalia Michelle, a mom from Texas whose son Lance has moderate autism with low verbal skills, behavioral issues, and a lack of impulse control.

According to Michelle, her son “did really well” with a CBD oil treatment that she was able to order online. She first heard of using cannabis as a treatment option for autism in 2014, and has since given Lance regular doses of CBD oil with less than 0.3 percent THC. The most notable results include shorter tantrum spells, which used to go on for hours but now only last 5 to 10 minutes. Lance’s aggression has also been reduced. However, Michelle reiterated that with her Lance’s “history of aggression and self-injurious behavior… my son, as well as many other children with autism need access to the whole plant, including various strains of THC.”

In her effort to help expand legal access to cannabis so that children with autism can have more treatment options, Michelle co-founded Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA). The primary goal of the organization, which currently has 12 chapters across the United States, is the legalization of marijuana in the United States, with autism as a qualifying condition. Their campaign #cannabis4autism focuses on changing state laws so that the drug will be legally accessible in more places. Mothers are also sharing their success stories on the website to gather more anecdotal evidence (along with scientific research) to make a case for medical cannabis as a viable treatment for autism.

Another advocate for using cannabis for treating autism is Mieko Hester-Perez. Her son Joey had autism and was also later diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare and severe type of degenerative muscular disorder. After this diagnosis, Joey was given only six months to live and would need more medications on top of the 13 medicines that he was taking daily at the time.

Desperate for alternatives, Hester-Perez finally stumbled upon cannabis, and dared to experiment with infused edibles. The result was overwhelmingly positive. Not only was Joey able to maintain eye contact more consistently — which is difficult for children with autism — he was also able to gain weight and, more importantly, live beyond that initial six-month-terminal prognosis with a quality of life that is much better than Hester-Perez has imagined. This success led to the founding of the Unconventional Foundation for Autism, a group dedicated to raising awareness and compiling data to support both patients with autism and their families, and medical professionals who are working to have a better understanding of the disorder.

Meanwhile, Yohai Golan-Gild, founder of Better Pharmaceuticals, said that the company found evidence that cannabis may be used to treat autism by accident. “We stumbled upon it by mistake. We weren’t looking at autism, we were treating epileptic children in Israel,” he said in a recent interview. It just so happened, he added, that most of the epilepsy patients also had autism.

One of their patients was a nonverbal autistic and epileptic child, who spoke for the first time after being administered with their cannabis-derived treatment. The progress with the patient, who was around 11 to 12 years old at the time, prompted the team to take a closer look at the effects of cannabis to autistic patients. The Israeli government has since given Better Pharmaceuticals permission to observe children with autism who are taking medical marijuana and, according to Golan-Gild, the results are very promising. They are now planning to conduct the same studies in Australia, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

At Present: Treatments for Autism

Because the symptoms of autism can manifest in different ways and combinations and vary in severity, and because these symptoms also often change over the years, treatments for autism are often tailored to the patient’s individual needs. The most common treatment is behavioral training and management to improve behavior, social skills, and communications. The most popular methods include Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA, and Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children or TEACCH.

Specialized therapies are also critical components in autism management. These specialized therapies include speech therapy to improve language, communication, and social skills; and occupational and physical therapies to improve motor and coordination skills. Occupational therapy is also used to help an autistic child learn how to process sensory information, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.

Depending on the accompanying symptoms and related medical conditions, autistic patients may also be prescribed with medications. These include anxiolytics and antidepressants, sleep aids, and antipsychotic medicines. As for medications that are prescribed specifically to treat autism, there are currently only two drugs in circulation that have been approved by the FDA: risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify). These two medications reduce irritability, self-injuring behaviors, and aggressiveness in patients with autism. Side-effects of these drugs include weight gain, diabetes, heart problems, and gynecomastia or the development of male breasts. 

Cannabis as Treatment for Autism: The Risks and Concerns

While there are a number of studies that yielded positive results and various accounts that attest to its effectiveness, using cannabis as a treatment for autism is not without risks. The main concern is the possible effect of cannabinoids to young, still-developing brains. Research suggests that adolescents who use cannabis regularly risk negative effects to their mental health, among others adverse results. However, a research paper published in 2016 stressed that these side effects have yet to be studied thoroughly in patients with developmental or behavioral conditions like autism.

Another concern is dosing. As with the recreational use of the drug, there is no standard dose that delivers the same results for everyone. The right dosage for one patient may be an overdose for another, which may make symptoms worse. Finding that subjective therapeutic window takes time, especially when 1 of 68 people in the United States alone have ASD.

Finding a suitable cannabis strain is also tricky. Presently, many parents are using cannabis strains with high CBD and minimal THC content, for concerns about the latter’s psychoactive effects. However, THC has been proven to be helpful in managing behavioral issues, so it may prove to be useful in autistic patients as well. At the same time, THC may not be a necessary component for every patient because, as earlier mentioned, there is no standard dose that works for everyone.

Cannabis Strains for Autism

Two of the most viable cannabis strains for treating autism are Charlotte’s Web and Joey’s Strain, both of which are developed for specific patients: Charlotte Figi and Joey Hester-Perez. Charlotte’s Web was cultivated and produced by the Stanley Brothers in Colorado, specifically to combat Charlotte Figi’s Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. The strain has high levels of CBD to induce relaxation, while its low THC content (less than 0.3 percent) ensures that there are no psychoactive side-effects.

Joey’s Strain, on the other hand, was developed by Aaron Justis, president of Buds & Roses Collective, a cannabis facility in Los Angeles, California, and his business partners and cultivators Kyle Kushman and Tyler Wadleigh. This cannabis strain has a balanced combination of cannabinoids and terpenes to manage Joey Hester-Perez’s symptoms of autism and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Similar to Charlotte’s Web, Joey’s Strain is primarily high in CBD.

High-THC cannabis strains such as Hindu Kush and LA Confidential may also be used by older autistic patients. However, it’s important to note that these strains may also trigger feelings of anxiety, so careful dosing should be practiced. If given in the correct amounts (again, based on one’s therapeutic window), these strains can help the patient sleep better and manage symptoms such as restlessness and hyperactivity.

Will It Be a Success?

There is a lot of public interest surrounding cannabis as a viable autism treatment, especially with advocates working with cultivators and medical professionals in finding a legitimate solution. Momentum is on cannabis’s side and, hopefully, this level of awareness will translate to more research funding and a shift in the law’s stance with regard to medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, autistic patients and their loved ones can only wait and see if cannabis is truly the alternative treatment that they have been looking for. Perhaps they can take courage in the fact that there are hundreds of success stories, despite the odds facing both the researchers who are working tirelessly to uncover the potential of cannabis in treating autism, and the patients and their families who are brave enough to try alternative treatments.

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