As many as 14 states in the US have legalized medical marijuana treatment for Autism and a few others may permit it for severe cases at the discretion of a doctor. In this post, we will look at a few questions (and their answers!) that may help parents decide whether medical marijuana is the ideal choice of treatment for their autistic child or not.
What is autism and what are its symptoms?
To begin with the basics, Autism is defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual’s overall cognitive, emotional, social, and physical health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 54 children is battling the disorder; further stats suggest that autism is more often seen in boys, with a 4-to-1 male to female ratio.
Symptoms typically begin to appear between 12-24 months of age; the most prominent one being a marked delay in language and social development.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), categorizes autism symptoms into the following two categories:
Communication and Social Interaction problems:
- Issues with verbal communication: Having trouble sharing interests, feelings, maintaining a back and forth conversation.
- Issues with non-verbal communication: Facing difficulty maintaining eye contact or reading body language.
- Problems with developing and maintaining relationships
Restricted or repetitive behavior pattern:
- Strict adherence to specific behaviors
- Repetitive speech patterns, movements/motion
- Fixated interests/preoccupations
- A change in sensitivity to specific sensory stimuli, such as a negative reaction to a particular sound.
How can cannabis help patients with autism?
CBD, the non-intoxicating compound present in cannabis, has shown promising results, as confirmed by various studies.
A 2018 clinical trial of a synthetic CBD drug manufactured by pharma giant Zynerba showed considerable drops in anxiety levels and other extreme behavioral traits in patients suffering from Fragile X Syndrome, a condition related to autism. Furthermore, CBD blocks the CB1 receptors in the brain which could help reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures, as seen in an animal-model study published in 2013.
However, CBD alone may not be enough to experience the entire broad spectrum of benefits. Another 2018 study suggests that a 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC relieves aggressive outbursts in children suffering from the disorder.
Interestingly, the effects of cannabis may go beyond the cannabinoid receptors, suggests another recent piece of research. It found that mice that ingested CBD over a period of time showed changes to DNA methylation in regions of the genome associated with autism.
Are there any approved cannabis-based drugs that could treat autism and related conditions?
As of now, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one cannabis-derived product named Epidiolex, available for purchase only with a prescription. Epidiolex contains liquid cannabis extract with purified CBD that helps to reduce the intensity and frequency of seizures in patients suffering from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome – severe forms of epilepsy experienced by many autistic children.
Reportedly, the company that manufactures Epidiolex, GW Pharmaceuticals, is conducting a trial of the drug for another neurodevelopmental condition named Rett Syndrome, which again is a condition related to autism. However, the said trial isn’t aimed toward reducing seizures, but on improving cognitive and behavioral problems.
Is cannabis a safe option?
At the moment, we are not sure how cannabis may affect us in the long-term. So deeming it a panacea wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Clinical trials of Epidiolex, for instance, showed that the drug could lead to elevated liver enzymes, which may indicate liver damage.
Furthermore, many CBD products in the market contain undisclosed amounts of psychoactive THC, which may cause short term intoxication. Other short term side effects of medical marijuana include sedation and restlessness. The dosages though used for medical use are quite low and don’t pose high risks.
Notably, Researchers are still not sure as to how the ingredients of cannabis affect the brain, especially of a child or a teenager. One study even found that recreational cannabis use in teenagers could negatively impact the individual’s brain with age.