Is cannabis the best treatment for autism?

Nobody really knows what causes autism. Current research suggests that both genetics and environment play a role, and currently, there is still no known cure.

Bringing the issue to the fore was a story on the ABC this week regarding parents in Queensland illegally giving their child cannabis to treat his autism. In the same report, it was revealed that a major study on the benefits of cannabis in the treatment of autism in Israel is about to start, and early reports of children and young adults participating in trials with beneficial results are proving very hopeful indeed.

In an article in Neurology, details of a study led by Dr Adi Aran, director of the pediatric neurology unit at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, found that cannabis treatment with a high concentration of CBD (the non-psychoactive substance considered to have medicinal properties, as opposed to the psychedelic THC properties) improved the condition of 80% of the children in a study he conducted.

The symptoms that characterise autism are many and varied given the acuteness of the condition. According to a very moving article on this topic in Newsweek (well worth the read) children with milder “high-functioning” autism are often uninterested in making friends and have a hard time making eye contact or reading social cues. These individuals face challenges but can usually navigate building a life within their society.

However in cases of severe “low-functioning” autism, the symptoms are more visible and often violent, the Newsweek article reported. Children engage in repetitive and sometimes harmful behaviours, like rocking and head-banging, and are hypersensitive to sound and light, with exposure often triggering tantrum-like meltdowns. Some of these children never learn to speak, or can still only utter a few words upon reaching their teen years.

Using cannabis as a treatment, the CBD compound found within cannabis is harnessed and works in a different way to THC and often with opposite effects. It doesn’t bind directly to cannabinoid receptors, it’s not psychoactive, and it doesn’t alter how the brain functions, Newsweek revealed. Instead, CBD interacts with the brain indirectly. That process, called modulation, combats psychosis, depression, inflammation, anxiety and depression. While it’s THC that gets people high—it’s the plant’s CBD that relaxes them and counters anxiety, making it relevant to epilepsy and autism, the report read.

And while we wait for a hopeful outcome of the major trial currently underway in Israel, perhaps we can be buoyed by some of the preliminary results from trials already conducted by Dr Aran in a paper that will be published later this year which summarises the results.

According to the report, most parents said their children improved from the treatment. Nearly half saw a marked reduction in the core symptoms of autism, and nearly a third said their children either started speaking for the first time or were communicating nonverbally. One child said, “I love you, Mom”—for the first time in his life.

Click here for the moving story at Newsweek



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