Is Cannabis an Effective Treatment for Autism and Seizure Disorders?

April 5, 2022
Cannabis Effective Treatment for Autism and Seizure Disorders?
Cannabis Effective Treatment for Autism and Seizure Disorders?

Medical marijuana and products derived from it have been progressively tested by autistic families across the United States for quite some time. While it is widely accepted that these medicines can help with a wide range of autistic symptoms, research into their safety and effectiveness is still in its early stages. As a result, anyone considering marijuana as a cure for a  variety of conditions must rely on anecdotal evidence due to a lack of scientific research on its efficacy and safety. This article will go over what researchers currently know regarding the safety and efficacy of cannabis as a potential treatment for people with autism and other developmental disorders. 

What is Medical Marijuana?

As a general rule, the term “medical marijuana” refers to all products made from cannabis plants that a doctor has prescribed. Autistic people and their families have grown to rely on medical marijuana for various ailments, including treating chronic pain, epilepsy, and sleep disorders. Cannabis contains more than 500 additional chemicals that may affect people’s behavior and cognition, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Almost all of the medicinal research nowadays is focused on CBD, the less psychoactive component of cannabis. 

Can Cannabis Treat Autism or Related  Conditions?

Only one cannabis-derived medicine has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug  Administration thus far: Epidiolex, a liquid cannabis extract. People with severe forms of epilepsy, such as Dravet syndrome or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, who may also have autism,  and those with tuberous sclerosis complex may benefit from this prescribed liquid cannabis extract which contains pure CBD.  

In a clinical trial for Rett syndrome, G.W. Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Epidiolex, is currently testing the effectiveness of the medicine to help improve cognitive and behavioral difficulties rather than alleviating seizures. Cannabidivarin, a component found in cannabis, is also being trial tested on autistic children and teenagers to investigate its effects on autistic children’s repetitive behaviors—their quality of life is the focus of this study. 

Is Marijuana Still a Schedule 1 Drug?

Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by federal law in the United States. Schedule  1 drugs are classified as drugs with no accepted medical use and have a high likelihood of abuse. Labs researching Schedule 1 drugs must adhere to stringent security standards and undergo frequent facility inspections because of their illegality. 

While medicinal marijuana is authorized in 33 states and Puerto Rico, the list of ailments that qualify for this drug differs from state to state, with seizures and sleep disorders among the most common. CBD oil is legal in all of these states and an additional 13 states. Medical marijuana for autism spectrum disorder has been approved in 14 states and Puerto Rico, with some other states allowing it at the doctor’s discretion. 

As long as they include less than 0.3 percent THC, CBD products made from industrial hemp are lawful in the United States. Additionally, CBD oil may contain up to 5 percent THC in some areas. In many states where medical marijuana is legal, licensed dispensaries that sell products that have been approved by accredited laboratories have been tested to verify the presence of active ingredients and the absence of contaminants to ensure safe use.

Some states permit individuals or licensed caregivers to grow their cannabis plants for personal use. Most states in the United States require people who use medical marijuana to register and sign up for a  special identification card in order to sell. In the rest of the world, the use of medical marijuana is permitted in several European countries and Australia, Canada, Israel, and Jamaica, each country with its own laws surrounding the drug. 

Does Cannabis Help Autistic People?

More and more parents are turning to marijuana and cannabis extracts to treat their child’s seizures, behavioral difficulties, and other autism-related symptoms. However, doctors warn that these medications are still largely unproven for such uses. Despite promising outcomes in animal models and early clinical trials, the general usage of cannabis still remains in question. The active chemicals in cannabis are considered to work by attaching to proteins in the brain called cannabinoid receptors: THC activates the CB1 and CB2 receptors, whereas CBD  appears to block them

Neurons in the brain and throughout the body contain both types of cannabinoid receptors.  When the brain is activated, the activation of CB1 and CB2 receptor types affects various ion channels, and proteins essential for cell signaling. Cannabinoid receptor activation has different consequences depending on whatever physiological system it affects. Furthermore,  cannabinoid activation can either enhance or decrease neuronal excitability depending on which kind of neuron a cannabinoid binds to, while stimulation of CB2 receptors in the digestive system might reduce inflammation

Studies have also shown that CBD helps children with CDKL5 deficiency disorder (a seizure and developmental delay-prone illness associated with autism), reduce their seizures. It is believed that CDKL5 defective condition in mice can be alleviated by CBD, which reduces seizures and enhances learning and sociability. 

A 2019 study found that the same ratio of chemicals improved the quality of life for some autistic adolescents and teenagers. There were considerably fewer seizures, tics, episodes of depression, restlessness, and outbursts among the study participants than in the control group. About 25 percent of patients reported adverse effects such as restlessness due to the treatment. 

Additionally, cannabis may have effects that transcend beyond the cannabinoid receptors themselves. A 2020 study found that long-term CBD consumption resulted in DNA  methylation alterations in parts of the genome related to autism in mice. Epigenetic modifications may be partially responsible for CBD’s behavioral benefits, but the researchers did not directly assess the mice’s behavior in this experiment. 

How Do Cannabis Products Line Up In  Terms of Safe and Effective Use?

Those who have access to a licensed cannabis dispensary can generally ensure that they are purchasing quality, regulated products; but people who choose to buy their marijuana online rather than at a state-licensed dispensary have found that these goods aren’t all created equal.  Alternatively, people living with epilepsy and others who use cannabis for various ailments frequently grow their own at home.  

CBD products sold online or in health food shops are not as effective as pharmaceutical-grade  CBD in managing seizures, according to a presentation at the 2020 meeting of the American  Academy of Neurology (AAN). 

What Are the Risks of Cannabis?

Unfortunately, this is still unclear. Large doses are not lethal in most cases, but chronic use can have long-term consequences. Despite its success with some patients, the FDA has issued a warning on Epidiolex after studying the results of its clinical studies, citing the possibility that the medicine could raise liver enzymes, which can lead to liver damage. While CBD is considered slightly psychoactive,  many preparations do contain undisclosed amounts of THC, leading to intoxication and impairment.

The short-term adverse effects of cannabis treatment, such as drowsiness or restlessness,  have been well-documented in several studies. It’s still unclear how marijuana’s active chemicals work in the brain—especially how it might damage or impact a child’s or teenager’s developing brain—or how they might combine with other drugs. 

There is some evidence to suggest that recreational marijuana usage in one’s adolescent years can have long-term cognitive consequences. According to specialists, the dosages utilized for medical purposes are frequently lower than those used in a recreational environment. 

How to Advocate for Medical Marijuana  Legalization for Autism?

Marijuana and autism is quite a controversial and discussible topic. A range of options is available to parents who want to advocate for medical marijuana legislation in their area or for autism to be included as a qualifying diagnosis. Getting in touch with your elected officials via email, phone call, or in-person is a crucial step in letting them know that you care about the subject at hand. As more research is conducted, medical marijuana’s potential benefits for children with autism will become more apparent to parents and legislators. 

Getting hospitals to do their own research and clinical trials is essential to gaining clarity on the usage and efficacy of the drug. Being a member of an organization like MAMMA can keep you up to date on new research and advocacy initiatives to help alleviate symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder.