Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Autism, is a neurological and developmental disorder which begins early in childhood and lasts throughout a person’s life. There are numerous types of autism, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences, distinguished by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, verbal, and nonverbal communication. Spectrum refers to the broad range of symptoms, unique strengths, and differences in levels of functioning that occur in people with ASD.
ASD touches every racial and ethnic group, affecting one in 68 American children, with boys significantly more likely to develop symptoms than girls. Many children and adults diagnosed with ASD can perform all activities of daily living while others require substantial support. A diagnosis of ASD includes a comprehensive evaluation of intellectual disability and language impairment performed by a team, including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other professionals who treat children with ASD.
ASD and The Endocannabinoid System
Research shows that the endocannabinoid system affects many physiological functions in both the central and peripheral nervous systems and peripheral organs. Modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system is proving to be an effective treatment for a wide range of diseases and pathological conditions. The endocannabinoid system is also known to affect conditions often present in patients diagnosed with ASD, such as seizures, anxiety, and sleep pattern disturbances.
What is CBD?
Cannabis contains nearly 100 different compounds, known as cannabinoids, found in both varieties of the plant. The most well-known is the cannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana. Marijuana is grown and cultivated to produce high levels of THC which induce the intoxicating effect associated with the plant. Hemp holds insignificant amounts of THC and has no psychoactive properties, but both varieties contain Cannabidiol (CBD), the second most abundant cannabinoid.
Cannabinoids are unique because they act on cannabinoid receptors, components of the human body’s endocannabinoid system. Studies have shown that CBD, extracted from marijuana or hemp, has potential as an effective treatment for seizures, anxiety and panic disorders, seizures, and other conditions associated with ASD.
The Endocannabinoid system is where the connection between CBD and ASD starts to make sense. A lot of autism’s symptoms are related to the functions of the endocannabinoid system, the most significant regulatory system in the body. Recently the U.S Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended a CBD based drug be approved to treat childhood epilepsy, with the approval of the product Epidiolex expected by June 27.
Many parents of autistic children have pushed for the use of medical marijuana and CBD treatments through the grassroots advocacy group Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, or MAMMA. The group’s primary goal is to make cannabis legally available to the over three million Americans diagnosed with ASD and provide children with autism access to cannabis-derived treatments under a doctors guidance.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence supports the benefits that CBD provides to people diagnosed with ASD, but there is a lack of clinical studies. University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers will begin to scientifically investigate whether CBD safely and effectively provides therapeutic benefit for ASD. Funded through a $4.7 million gift, researchers will carry out a clinical trial on 30 children, from the ages of eight to 12, all diagnosed with moderate to severe ASD but otherwise healthy.
The first-of-its-kind study, comprised of a multidisciplinary team of physicians and scientists, will employ basic research and clinical assessments to understand how CBD interacts with and alters neural activity. The study will measure if CBD effectively and safely relieves some of the symptoms of ASD, such as aggressive behaviors, repetitive or self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity and social and communicative deficits.
There is currently no cure for ASD, but existing pre-clinical evidence strongly supports CBD as a treatment to ease patient symptoms. The study hopes to provide evidence-based knowledge of cannabis and cannabinoids use as medicine, for autism and other neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders. The scientific approach applied by UC San Diego researchers, combining clinical, basic and translational data among the same test group, offers the best chance of helping to understand the role CBD may play in the treatment of ASD.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mar. 2018.
Powell, Burgess. “Advocates for Medical Marijuana for Autism To Gather in Louisiana.” High Times, High Times, 2 Apr. 2018.
Stickney, R. “Study to Examine Cannabis’ Effect on Severe Autism.” NBC Southern California, NBC Southern California, 28 Apr. 2018.
Zamberletti, Erica, et al. “The Endocannabinoid System and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Insights from Animal Models.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, MDPI, Sept. 2017.