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This 2018 review summarizes the available data regarding the safety and effectiveness of medical cannabis in young ASD patients. Here’s our video adaptation:
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) defines a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that are frequently associated with general cognitive deficits
DSM-5 criteria of ASD include:
A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction
B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities
C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period
D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability or global developmental delay
ASD is frequently accompanied by co-morbidities:
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
mood and cognitive disorders
Despite it being one of the most severe chronic childhood disorders with relatively high prevalence, morbidity and impact on the society, no effective treatment for the core symptoms of ASD is available yet.
There is increasing interest in cannabinoids, especially cannabidiol (CBD), as monotherapy or add-on treatment for the core symptoms and co-morbidities of ASD.
CBD Use for Epilepsy
20-30% of people with ASD also suffer from epilepsy
Surveys conducted among parents of children suffering from epilepsy suggest improvement following treatment with CBD-enriched cannabis extracts. These results however, do not necessarily apply when it comes to treating adults with epilepsy (Alexander et al., 2009).
Still, in a retrospective study that examined the effect of CBD enriched medical cannabis oil on children with intractable epilepsy, the treatment caused a reduction in seizure frequency in 89% of patients (Tzadok et al., 2016).
CBD Use in Psychiatry
CBD in Psychosis
In some cases, psychosis can be a comorbidity of ASD, with the simultaneous onset of schizophrenia at adolescence or early adulthood (Sagar et al., 2013).
A 2006 study that investigated the influence of CBD as monotherapy in treatment-resistant schizophrenia found that it was ineffective (Zuardi et al., 2006).
But a 2018 study showed that, in patients with schizophrenia, adding CBD to ongoing antipsychotic treatment resulted in greater antipsychotic activity and beneficial effects, as compared to placebo add-on (Mcguire et al., 2018).
CBD and Anxiety
Many ASD patients suffer from anxiety disorders that harm their quality of life (Gu, 2017; Haan et al., 2008; Perrin, 2011).
CBD may possess anxiolytic effects both in animals and humans (Bergamaschi et al., 2011).
When tested in humans, CBD showed an anxiolytic effect in patients that suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD), contrary to THC that may induce anxiety (Devinsky et al., 2014).
CBD, mood and cognitive disorders
It was previously shown that a variety of psychiatric co-morbidities may occur in ASD patients, the most common one being mood disorders (Ghaziddin and Zafar, 2008).
Risks of THC
THC use may be associated with onset or aggravation of depression, bipolar disorder, mania and psychosis (Rong et al., 2017).
THC administration may also result in memory impairment (Ranganathan and Souza, 2006; Rong et al., 2017).
Benefits of CBD
On the other hand, CBD possesses agonistic activity at the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor and shares similar mechanisms with lithium. These pharmacological properties may indicate its potential role in the treatment of mood disorders (Rong et al., 2017).
Therapeutic CBD properties were investigated for cognitive deficits as well. In a preclinical study that tested the effect of CBD on cognition in an Alzheimer’s Disease mouse model (APPxPS1), chronic CBD treatment reversed the cognitive deficits without affecting anxiety-related behaviors (Cheng et al., 2014).
CBD and sleep disorders
Sleep disorders are highly prevalent among children with ASD.
In the general population insomnia is the most common sleep complaint, and treatment with medical cannabis may be effective, especially when the insomnia is associated with pain (Gates et al., 2014).
It has been claimed that long term use of cannabis may induce sleep disturbances (Gates et al., 2014). however, a case series indicated that CBD treatment may actually improve the quality of sleep in Parkinson’s disease (Chagas et al., 2014).
CBD and ADHD
ADHD is one of the most common psychiatric co-morbidities in young ASD patients (Ghaziddin and Zafar, 2008), with comorbidity rates in the range of 40-70% (Antshel et al., 2016).
In a pilot randomized placebo-controlled experimental study of a cannabinoid medication (an oral spray containing 1:1 ratio of THC:CBD) in adults who suffer from ADHD, there was no significant improvement in the cognitive performance, but there was a significant improvement in the hyperactivity, impulsivity and inhibition measures after the treatment with the medical cannabis (Cooper et al., 2017).
The role of cannabis use for social behavior
Some studies show that THC administration may lead as well to a reduction in social interaction in rats, while co-administration of CBD seems to attenuate this effect (Malone et al., 2009).
On the other hand, in a study that tested the influence of marijuana smoking on healthy human volunteers, subjects reported retrospectively that while smoking marijuana they were happier, friendlier and calmer, responded more warmly to others, seemed to have a better understanding of their peers’ state of mind and were less likely to respond angrily or defensively. However, they had a harder time focusing and paying attention to what others said (Galanter et al., 1974).
CBD Use for Children
The administration of cannabinoids for children and adolescents suffering from ASD is a controversial legal and ethical issue (Khalil, 2012).
Those who oppose the use of medical cannabis in pediatrics claim that this treatment might harm young children and adolescents’ brain development.
In the field of pediatric mental illnesses, CBD is sometimes used as a treatment for anxiety disorders. In a case report describing a 10-year-old girl who suffered from PTSD after being sexually abused, it was reported that CBD treatment reduced her anxiety and improved her sleep (Shannon, 2016).
The use of cannabinoids in general and CBD in particular in the treatment of numerous medical and mental conditions, including ASD, is growing rapidly.
There certainly is a big gap in the field and such studies are needed before drawing any conclusions on the potential therapeutic applications of cannabinoids in ASD.
Further pre-clinical and clinical studies are needed in order to examine the pros and cons of CBD and other cannabinoids in ASD, before they are established as a treatment for ASD symptoms and co-morbidities.
Training and Practices of Cannabis Dispensary Staff
How much medical training does your local budtender possess? An online survey sent to medical marijuana dispensary staff reported only 55% of staffers had any formal training for their position, with 20% reporting some background in medical/scientific training. The analysis reported that many among the dispensary staff are recommending cannabis choices that are consistent with current evidence, but some are recommending strains that are either ineffective or exacerbate a patient’s condition. The findings of this study stress the importance of consistent and well-regulated training of dispensary staff.
Study finds that most young adult smokers engage in multiple other health risk behaviors. When placed in an intervention, participants were most ready to change their stress management and least ready to change their cannabis use.
Preferences for Medical Marijuana over Prescription Medications Among Persons Living with Chronic Conditions: Alternative, Complementary, and Tapering Uses
In a survey of 30 patients using medical cannabis for a range of illnesses, including Rheumatoid Arthritis, cancer, Hepatitis C, PTSD, and more, patients reported an array of benefits from their cannabis use. Patients successfully used cannabis as an alternative to prescription medication, as a complementary agent with traditional prescription medicines, and to gradually help halt the use of some prescription medications. Benefits described by participants included the effects of cannabis lasting longer than that of opioids, lower risk of addiction, fewer side-effects. Patients also saw their sleep, anxiety, appetite, and adverse reactions improve with the use of medical cannabis. Larger, more controlled studies may suggest cannabis more affirmatively as an alternative or complementary therapy with prescription medications.