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New Evidence of Medical Cannabis’s Value for Autism

by Thomas Wrona
918 Words
A new study researched in Israel describes how children with autism spectrum disorders are benefiting from medical cannabis.

Whether it be on the news or at the pharmacy, it seems medical cannabis is being talked about everywhere. 

And for good reason — medical cannabis can help everyone from the epileptic child to the elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Science is beginning to support what ancient cultures have known for centuries, and the scope of medical cannabis’s positive qualities just keeps expanding.

Now the plant’s benefits can be applied to yet another group of patients: those with autism. That’s according to a recent scientific study by Schleider, Mechoulem, et al involving children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). ASD is another hot topic these days, but just as with medical cannabis the talk is justified. 

Citing several studies (including a population-based study done on Californians), Mechoulem et al described how Autism diagnoses have risen 300% over the past three decades — for reasons largely undetermined by Western science. It appears that autism is a multi-symptomatic convergence of both genetic and environmental factors, which in turn may cause neurochemical changes, ‘rigid’ thinking, anti-sociability, and more. 

Cannabis for Autism: An Old Idea With New Scientific Backing

Anecdotal evidence surrounding medical cannabis’ utility for autistic children is nothing new. Dr. Lester Grinspoon, MD, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, realized this as far back as the 1960s. 

Writing for O’Shaughnessy’s Magazine Dr. Grinspoon reported: “Parents of some autistic children report that cannabis eases behavioral problems more effectively than conventional pharmaceuticals. Their anecdotal evidence should be taken seriously by medical researchers.”

Dr. Grinspoon was the real deal; he was the first American doctor to adopt the use of lithium carbonate for bipolar disorder, among other distinctions. Fast forward to earlier this year, when a research team spanning two Universities — and decades of research experience, thanks to the participation of forerunning cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam — verified what astute MD’s like Grinspoon had suspected for decades. 

To make their discovery, researchers analyzed the data of 188 autistic patients (average age, 13 years old) who participated in a two-year long medical cannabis treatment plan. Most patients were on a relatively aggressive dosing strategy, consuming approximately 60 milligrams of total cannabinoids (20 parts CBD, 1 part THC) three times per day. 

Distribution of cannabinoids consumption

The first six months of this dosing plan was closely followed by researchers. Most participants took their medical cannabis in the form of sublingual oils. After just six months of use, what Schneider and the rest of the research team documented was incredible: 83.8% of these autistic patient’s parents reported moderate to significant improvements in the lives of their children.  

What kind of improvements? When dosed on high-strength, high-CBD cannabis oil, pediatric patients became more independent. They were able to shower on their own and dress themselves. Nearly 25% of patients also began sleeping better. Episodes of restlessness and rage, two trademark behavioral symptoms of autism, were also greatly improved.

The vast majority of these improvements (approximately 95%) came within the first month of the six-month-long treatment protocol, implying that it doesn’t take long for cannabis to counteract autism — or to fully kick in.  

There’s only one real caveat to this particular study: it included no control group. The study’s authors were left to conclude that “therefore no causality between cannabis therapy and improvement in patients’ wellbeing can be established.”  But one can’t deny that a very positive correlation is there — and future studies with control groups will likely find more. 

What We Can Learn from This “Real Life” Study

There are several key points to be gleaned here, the largest being that medical cannabis dosing for new patients is very individualized. 

For this reason, starting low and going slow is probably the best general dosing strategy. Dosages used in the study’s medical program were ”increased gradually for each patient depending on the effect of the cannabis oil. […] Finding [the] optimal dose could take up to two months and dosage range is wide.”

Another major point: medical cannabis may help with social interaction, even for those without autism. It seems that endocannabinoids mediate oxytocin-driven social reward; use cannabis to improve endocannabinoid tone, and sociability may increase. 

Additional Evidence 

Mechoulam et al’s study came on the heels of another Israel-led effort, conducted by pediatric neurologist Dr. Adi Aran. In it, 60 children were prescribed a high-CBD cannabis oil (also 20:1 CBD:THC) over the course of 7 months of treatment. 

Sixty-one percent of these patients and their parents reported reduced behavioral outbreaks, with many others noticing significant improvements in communication (47%) and anxiety levels (39%).  Those improvements are impressive in and of themselves. Yet it’s also important to acknowledge corresponding benefits in the lives of the children’s parents and caregivers; 33% of them reported feeling less stressed.  

It seems as though a positive trend has been emerging, and Mechoulam’s experiential study simply brought it into the limelight. An earlier paper from 2013 discovered that poor endocannabinoid tone is associated with autism. Even the Autism Society of America has lent credence to the possibility that cannabinoids like CBD might help autism; as Project CBD reports, they just held webinars going over some of these same studies. 

In light of the fact that “no specific treatments are currently available and interventions are focussing on lessening of the disruptive behaviors” (that’s according to Schleider and Mechoulam et al again), the potential of medical cannabis to improve the lives of autistic patients and their families becomes even more exciting.