Medical Marijuana For Autism?


  • Autism is estimated to affect 2% of children in the U.S.
  • Autism is strongly linked to genetic factors such as Fragile X Syndrome
  • Evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system may be altered in cases of autism
  • Medical marijuana has been suggested as a treatment by both patients and doctors
  • Research is still in its early stages and human studies have yet to be conducted – Autism can be a major source of stress and self-doubt for parents of diagnosed children. It’s all-too-common for parents to wonder whether there was something that could’ve been done to prevent their child from getting the disorder.

But while the overall occurrence of autism seems to be trending upward, the truth is that scientists are not any closer to identifying a cause, not to mention a cure.

So for parents struggling to find an effective treatment for their child’s condition, recent research on medical marijuana may be welcomed news.

What is Autism?

Autism (also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a mental condition that starts to take effect within the first three years of a person’s life. Symptoms of autism are most pronounced during childhood and are estimated to affect 2% of U.S children.
Autism interferes with normal brain function and is characterized by 3 core symptoms: impaired communication, impaired social interaction and repetitive patterns of behaviours and interests. And although researchers have yet to identify the exact source of autism, a disorder known as Fragile X Syndrome remains the most commonly known genetic cause.

Autism occurs on a broad spectrum, meaning that each individual’s case is unique. Still, a number of pharmaceuticals are commonly prescribed to help patients manage their symptoms, ranging from stimulants to antipsychotics. Unfortunately, many of these drugs come with serious side effects, including the risk of heart problems and weight gain.

Parents have expressed serious concern over the risks associated with the use of pharmaceuticals, not to mention the significant portion of patients who respond poorly to these medicines. As a result, some are beginning to see medical cannabis as a safer and more effective alternative.

How Can Marijuana Help?

The endocannabinoid system – the body’s natural cannabinoid system – is known to play a therapeutic role in a wide range of disorders. Recent evidence suggests that it may play a role in the treatment of autism as well.

Given that autism is strongly linked to genetics, researchers at the University of California set out to investigate the role of cannabinoids in Fragile X Syndrome. Published in 2012, the study showed that levels of 2-AG (2-arachidonoylglycerol) – a natural cannabinoid that binds to CB1 receptors – were depressed in animals with the disorder. Furthermore, by increasing levels of 2-AG, the researchers were able to reduce some of the symptoms of autism, including behavioural defects.

Interestingly, a more recent study seemed to identify a link between the endocannabinoid system and immune cells sampled from children with autism. Immune dysfunction is believed to be another factor that contributes to the disorder, and, according to this study, may be linked to higher levels of CB2 receptors expressed by cells. While CB1 receptors were not found to be overexpressed, CB2 receptors play a much larger role in immune regulation. Based on these findings, the authors of the study concluded that CB2 receptors could be a therapeutic target for the management of autism.

Finally, various cannabinoid studies have provided strong evidence of marijuana’s medical benefits, which also prove to be exceptionally versatile. Autism may be just one of the many disorders for which medical cannabis can be used for, as summarized by Lebanese psychiatrist Dr. Rami Bou Khalil in a letter to the editor of the Journal of European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2012).

“CBD and THC may help in improving symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder by their sedative, antipsychotic, anticonvulsant and tranquilising effects.” – Dr. Rami Bou Khalil

What Doctors Are Saying

Evidence of medical marijuana’s usefulness in the treatment of autism comes mostly from anecdotal evidence. Indeed, while scientific research has yet to advance to the clinical stage, doctors and patients alike have already indicated their support.

Dr. Bernard Rimland, the late founder of the Autism Research Institute, was one of the first health professionals to write on this topic. In comparing the overall safety of marijuana to more common medications like Risperdal, Dr. Rimland asserts that marijuana is a much safer substance.

“…if one is going to need to use drugs, one ought to consider a relatively safe drug, like marijuana, if research bears out the good results that a number of parents have reported.” – Dr. Bernard Rimland

And despite the preliminary nature of current research, good results seem to have already been bore, although more studies need to be conducted before anyone can be certain.

Yet for some patients, more conclusive evidence doesn’t appear to be necessary. According to Dr. Jean Talleyrand, founder of the Oakland medical marijuana dispensary Medicann, 4 out of some 150,000 of his patients have sought cannabis for the treatment of autism.

“All four patients have had very good results.” – Dr. Jean Talleyrand

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