Many families find that CBD Oil is helpful for symptoms of ASD. Photo Credit: flickr/The Vape Guide.
Recently, families all over the world have explored medical cannabis to alleviate their loved ones’ symptoms. Often, these families hear about cases of cannabis providing quick and effective treatment for a range of things such as insomnia, epilepsy, chronic pain, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Take, for example, the story of Kalel Santiago from Puerto Rico. Doctors diagnosed Santiago with a form of autism that prevented him from speaking, as Yahoo! News reports. It took many attempts with other therapies before his family stumbled upon hemp oil as a promising treatment. After Santiago used the CBD oil spray, he was finally able to say his first words.
ASD is a “condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior.”
ASD ranges in severity. As MedicineNet highlights, ASD has three main symptoms. In children, many face difficulties communicating and repeat words or don’t understand emotions. Secondly, there may be delays in development milestones like learning to speak by 16 months of age. Thirdly, children may experience social problems by preferring to play alone, not responding to their name, or avoiding eye contact.
In both children and adults, those with ASD “may have limited, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities,” or have “difficulty with language or social skills,” MedicineNet explains.
As April is World Autism Month, to celebrate awareness of autism, Emerald has gathered research examining cannabis’ effect on those with the disorder.
How Might Cannabis Help Treat Symptoms of Autism?
According to research in the Journal of Cannabis Research, one way that cannabis is able to treat symptoms of ASD is by increasing the amount of oxytocin the pituitary gland releases. Oxytocin receptors are found throughout the central nervous system. It helps regulate social behavior, motor function, pain, memory, learning, eating behavior, stress, anxiety, and emotional processing. For example, previous studies have shown that giving oxytocin to patients helped improve social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and eye contact.
One Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study shows that giving oxytocin to mice enhances the impact of social stimuli. Researchers examined cross-sections of their brains after administering oxytocin. They discovered that social interaction increased due to sending messenger molecules to the nucleus accumbens. This is a section of the brain responsible for regulating motivational and emotional processes.
Oxytocin is involved with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a network of neurotransmitters and receptors that regulate the central nervous system, the Journal of Cannabis Research study states. Overall, the ECS helps regulate mood, sleep, appetite and many other bodily processes. Taking CBD is able to enhance its production and affect the main symptoms of ASD, the study further explains.
On the other hand, another suggestion for CBD’s effect on autism is protecting against toxins acting on cells’ mitochondria. Theories from the Journal of Neuroscience have posed that the mitochondria have CBD receptors and may play a role as an antipsychotic. While antipsychotics like risperidone are typically prescribed for schizophrenia, they have been effective in treating bursts of anger and hyperactivity in those with ASD.
Effects of Cannabinoids on Children
One statistic from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that roughly one in 44 children are diagnosed with ASD, and that 2.21% of adults (or nearly 5.5 million) have it. As such, it is all the more important to determine cannabis’ effect on the condition.
According to the medical journal Nature, researchers conducted a study with 188 children ranging from five to 18 years old diagnosed with autism. Among their symptoms are: “restlessness, rage attacks, agitation, speech impairment, cognitive impairment, anxiety, incontinence, depression and more,” the study states.
Three times a day, researchers gave the majority of the patients oils with 30% CBD and 1.5% THC; though 46 patients had evening doses of 3% THC oils for their insomnia. In a one month follow-up, 48.7% reported significant improvements while 31.1% had moderate improvements. After six months, researchers concluded that the oils provided relief for participants when comparing their condition from the start and end of the study.
Another study, this one in the Frontiers in Psychology, reviewed the effects of CBD oils on 53 children with ASD. After being approved by the Israeli Ministry of Health, nurse practitioners instructed parents on using oral drops. Specialists recorded the status of the symptoms every two weeks. While the treatment durations varied drastically for the patients, the analysis showed that 67.6% reported improvement for self-injury and fits of rage; 68.4% for hyperactivity; and 71.4% for sleep problems.
Existing Cannabis Treatments
CBD oils have become popular for treating ASD due to state-level decriminalization of cannabis and because they are widely available for consumers to purchase online.
However, Spectrum News, a resource for autism research, reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has currently only approved the cannabis-based medication Epidiolex. Its primary use is to ease seizures in people that have forms of epilepsy, which may appear alongside autism. However, doctors only prescribe this treatment to those with the Dravet syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or tuberous sclerosis complex.
Due to Epidiolex’s success in mitigating symptoms, more parents are considering the use of cannabinoid extracts for ASD-related traits. However, with only a few promising yet limited clinical trials done, long-term effects of its use for ASD remain unseen.