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New evidence of medical cannabis’s value for autism

New evidence of medical cannabis’s value for autism

High-CBD cannabis treatments can potentially make a positive difference for autistic children, according to a new non-placebo-controlled study. After just six months of treatment, over 83% of patients’ parents reported moderate to significant improvements in the lives of their children.

The researchers, led by Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider and Raphael Mechoulam, analyzed the data of 188 autistic patients (average age 13 years old) who participated in a two-year medical cannabis treatment plan. Most patients were on a relatively aggressive dosing strategy, consuming approximately 60 milligrams of total cannabinoids (20:1 CBD to THC) three times per day. 

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 Bar-Lev Schleider 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.  

Patients Became More Independent

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 treatment protocol, suggesting that it doesn’t take long for cannabis to begin working.  

Citing several studies (including a population-based study done on Californians), the researchers describe 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. 

The study, however, has a major caveat: 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.” 

Nonetheless, given these findings, cannabis may indeed be a promising breakthrough therapy for autism, and more rigorous trials and research are surely needed.

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. Endocannabinoids may mediate oxytocin-driven social reward increasing sociability. 

Additional Evidence 

The latest 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 to THC) over the course of seven 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 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 Bar-Lev 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.

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