Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a condition that poses challenges with social interaction, speech, nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, affects 1 in 54 children in the U.S. according to Autism Speaks. While there are two antipsychotic medications available and prescribed for people with autism, the negative side effects can outweigh the benefits. That’s why researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine are moving forward with a clinical trial to determine whether cannabidiol (CBD) might be an alternate solution.
CBD, one of the many cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, has become widely-recognized for its potential ability to aid in the treatment of ailments such as insomnia, anxiety, and epilepsy. Although many cannabis users report finding relief from the non-psychoactive cannabinoid, the plant’s Federal Schedule 1 illegal narcotic status means that rigorous and well-controlled human clinical trials are lacking — but UCSD is attempting to change that.
So far, CBD has gained recognition for its ability to modulate nerve cell messages in the body’s endocannabinoid system, which regulates bodily processes like immune response, social interaction, metabolism, memory, and mood. Coincidentally, the functions of the endocannabinoid system overlap with the kind of behavior affected by autism, which implies CBD might be able to help.
There are many subtypes of autism, which has made it challenging for scientists to develop a medication that works for a majority. Several factors can influence the development of autism, but it is typically associated with difficulty interacting socially.
Children with autism tend to have uncommon interests or behaviors and may show frustration with handling their emotions. They may also show signs of compulsivity, unusual sleeping habits, or a short attention span. But again, the symptoms and severity can range widely among children on the autism spectrum
Dr. Doris Trauner, Distinguished Professor of Neurosciences and Pediatrics at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, has cited CBD as having the potential to help many neurological conditions. “CBD may have potential for many neurological disabilities, but there is particular interest in autism because the behavioral problems can be severe and limit the child’s ability to learn and socialize,” said Trauner.
In patients with epilepsy, CBD attunes nerve cell messages in the brain involving anxiety and blocks signals to key neuron receptors that can lead to seizures when overstimulated. Similar modulations in the brain could potentially help regulate behaviors in patients with autism.
Medical Director of Canna Centers Dr. Bonni Goldstein has been a pediatrician for 28 years and a medical cannabis specialist for the last 12. Through her work, Goldstein has seen evidence that cannabis may help some children with autism “have better communication, less repetitive behaviors, less anxiety, and better social interaction.”
Goldstein treats pediatric patients with autism, medically supervising the administration of “CBD-rich, THC-rich and combination CBD+THC cannabis preparations” in the form of oil or an edible. About 50% of the patients’ parents reported less anxiety, better sleep, improved speech, increased focus, and fewer tantrums from their children after cannabis treatment. A few patients showed worsening symptoms, but once the treatment was completed, all patients returned to their baseline.
UCSD is currently recruiting participants for their research. The study will involve 30 participants, all between ages 7 and 14 with diagnosed cases of autism with severe symptoms. Children with epilepsy will be excluded from this research. The study, which will take place in phases, has half of the patients taking CBD and the other half a placebo — and then vice versa.
While CBD does not produce any effect of being “high,” its interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system holds promise for patients experiencing neurological difficulties. The results of UCSD’s study may have a significant effect on the future of treating autism in children.