An Israeli study currently underway is finding that medical cannabis can be used to treat the symptoms of autism in children and adults.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2012, one in every 68 children(1.5 percent) in the United States were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They also found that the condition affects every race, gender, and socioeconomic group.
The disorder is often diagnosed when the child is around the age of two, when they demonstrate impaired social skills and communication abilities along with compulsive behaviors. Meanwhile, the costs of medical care, special education, and lost parental productivity weighs on the families; the annual total costs in the United States for children with ASD is estimated to be between about $11.5 billion and $60.9 billion.
Dr. Adi Aran, an Israel neurologist, may be able to offer the families some reprieve.
Dr. Aran is the Director of the Neuro-pediatric unit in Shaare Zedek Medical Center and his latest research involves treating the symptoms of autism using medical marijuana. “So far,” Aran tells NoCamels, “our impression is that it’s working.”
“In autism, it is the first of the field.”
Currently, only two atypical antipsychotic drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat symptoms of autism in the US. However, like many medications, they do not work for all patients and they can have serious side effects like weight gain and altered hormone production according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
ASD can also be treated with intensive behavioral therapies which require high levels of care ideally performed by both professionals and the parents. As Aran explains, “Before we started the study, many parents came to us and they asked for help for their children. Medications and all sorts of behavioral therapy methods didn’t help and they had heard about some reports that medical cannabis might help. In the beginning, we didn’t give them anything because it wasn’t proven,” explains Aran.
However, the parents persisted and Aran acquiesced. “Eventually we decided that it was worth checking because the families were really helpless. The quality of life was very poor.”
Dr. Aran set up the first ever clinical trial examining whether cannabis oil can treat children with autism. While he is “aware of some studies that are on their way in Israel and the United States but there are no other studies started yet.”
The clinical study began in January 2017 in Jerusalem at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. There are 120 participants, including children and young adults, diagnosed with various degrees of ASD ranging from mild to severe. Dr. Aran hopes to have final results by December 2017.
How does it work?
According to Dr. Aran, “there are theories” for why medical cannabis can alleviate symptoms of autism, “but we don’t know exactly how. There are theories and models but we don’t know. It can’t be explained.”
This is worrisome given that cannabis is being given to children with little knowledge of why or how it may help. Of course, “We are worried with children because of the long-term impact. But it is considered mostly safe and we have already tested it with epilepsy.” Other studies, like the one published in Seizure: European Journal of Epilepsy 2016, conducted in Israel, successfully demonstrated that cannabis reduced the number of seizures of children with epilepsy. Nonetheless, Aran admits that “There are always worries that something will happen that we don’t know about.”
It is key to note that the participants are receiving cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound, as opposed to the more commonly known tetrahyrdrocannabinol (THC), which creates the “high” feeling. Therefore, the benefits they seem gain from the treatment “help the children cooperate more,” reduce behavioral problems, and “improve their functioning.”
Israel: the forefront of cannabis research
Israel is one of the first modern nations to investigate the medical benefits of marijuana. The local founding father of cannabis research, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University, has been studying the plant since the 1960s. In fact, he discovered THC in 1964. Over the subsequent decades, other researchers around the world have joined him to explore cannabis’ potential medical applications.
In particular, Israel’s government sponsors a medical cannabis program and limits restrictions on such research unlike in the US. Some recent Israeli studies show that marijuana can heal bone fractures, relieve the pain associated with Parkinson’s disease, prevent brain damage, and even halt the spread of cancer.
Asked why Israel is such a medical cannabis research powerhouse, Aran concurred saying, “I’m sure that the government has a lot to do with it…They expedite things, not taking too long” with few legal restrictions and low cost.
While the study offers much hope for the children and families affected by ASD, Aran warns that “It won’t cure the symptoms, that’s for sure. It will never cure autism. But it certainly can help the quality of life of the families.”
That alone is quite a high goal to reach.