Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and interacts with the world around them. ASD is thought to be the result of a combination of genetic and nongenetic influences. Symptoms of ASD normally begin to show before the age of three and persist throughout life, the symptoms can however lessen with age. There are no medications that specifically target the core symptoms that people with ASD live with, although some may be prescribed medicine to help them manage co-morbid symptoms such as hyperactivity, aggressiveness, irritability and others.
Scientists have recently begun to look at the cannabis plant, specifically key cannabinoids, to see if it may be able to help people that live with the disability by alleviating some of the core and co-morbid symptoms of ASD. A study conducted in 2019 showed that children with ASD had lower levels of the body’s endogenous cannabinoids called endocannabinoids, this discovery has led scientists to run more tests to take a closer look at how cannabis can help.
Endocannabinoids such as anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol affect different behavioural traits such as cognitive function, emotional regulation, social motivation, and reward processing. A study which looked at mice models with ASD and treated them with CBD showed that “… this treatment alleviates anxiety and decreases repetitive grooming behaviour by over 70% in treated mutant mice compared to non-treated mutant mice”.
This month researchers published a study that aimed to build and expand on existing knowledge of how cannabis can help people with ASD. The study was run by Micha Hacohen et el in Tel Aviv, Israel, and published in Translational Psychiatry.
The 82 participants in the open-label study (open-label means all the participants were aware of the treatment they were receiving) were all young people aged between 5-25 and lived with ASD. They were administered a whole plant extract cannabis oil with a ratio of CBD:THC 20:1. High THC levels of cannabis were not given due to fears that the researchers had about participants developing psychosis.
The researchers said, “Note that the choice to treat individuals with ASD using CBD-rich cannabis, as performed in the studies described above, was motivated by concerns that THC-rich cannabis would induce psychosis. Furthermore, CBD-rich cannabis was proven safe and effective in treating epileptic seizures in children and was reported to improve symptoms in children with ASD and epilepsy.”
The participants received the cannabis treatment for six months while undergoing a series of standardised clinical tests to evaluate patients’ symptoms before, and after the treatment finished. The results showed a marked improvement in the test scores used to evaluate social communication skills and socialisation, however, they did not find that the treatment had a significant positive or negative impact on cognitive abilities.
“In this study, we demonstrate that this benefit includes improvement in social communication abilities, particularly for participants with high initial severity of core ASD symptoms. Moreover, this is the first study to examine the efficacy of cannabis treatment using both standardized clinical assessments, parent interviews and questionnaires. Despite differences in individual scores reported by parents and clinicians, the convergence of evidence regarding overall improvements following treatment strengthens the conclusions. These positive findings motivate further double-blind placebo-controlled studies for determining the efficacy of treatment with specific cannabis strains and/or synthetic cannabinoids” the study concluded.
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