Cannabis and Autism: Separating Fact from Fiction

May 31, 2023

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect many individuals and their families, and there's growing interest in using cannabis as a potential treatment. While research is still in its early stages, the topic has sparked controversy and confusion. Families are seeking guidance from doctors about using cannabis, particularly cannabidiol (CBD), to alleviate autism symptoms, such as seizures and aggression. However, the medical community lacks sufficient training and clear evidence on the matter.

Cannabis Overview: THC and CBD

Cannabis is a flowering plant with various species, including marijuana, which contains high levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). On the other hand, CBD, another component of cannabis, has gained attention for its potential therapeutic benefits without the mind-altering effects associated with THC.

Both THC and CBD interact with the body's endocannabinoid system, affecting different receptors. THC binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors, producing the "high" effect, while CBD has a lower affinity for these receptors and acts as an antagonist. CBD influences various receptor systems in the body, including serotonin and dopamine receptors, which may help with anxiety, sleep, pain perception, and nausea.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and behavior patterns. It is a complex condition thought to involve genetic and environmental factors, and its causes are not yet fully understood.

Currently, there are no medications that target autism's core symptoms, and existing treatments often focus on managing comorbid symptoms like anxiety or aggression. Families may turn to alternative treatments, such as cannabis, when traditional approaches prove ineffective or cause undesirable side effects.

Exploring Cannabis and Autism: The Research Landscape

Research on cannabis and autism is still in its early stages, but several studies have shown promise. For example, a 2018 Stanford University study found that anandamide, a naturally occurring lipid mediator in the body, was significantly lower in children with ASD compared to controls. Anandamide has effects similar to THC, leading researchers to theorize that THC may have therapeutic potential in treating autism.

Other studies have explored the effects of CBD on autism symptoms. A 2019 study in Israel reported significant improvement in self-injury, rage attacks, hyperactivity symptoms, sleep problems, and anxiety among autistic children who received a CBD to THC ratio treatment.

However, most of these studies were observational and lacked placebo control groups, making it challenging to draw definitive conclusions.

Barriers to Research and Caution

Despite the growing interest in cannabis as a treatment for autism, research faces various barriers. The federal government's classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug restricts its study, and obtaining approval for research takes a considerable amount of time. Additionally, the lack of well-designed clinical trials with adequate sample sizes hinders the establishment of evidence-based recommendations.

marijuana effects

As of now, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry discourages the use of marijuana and cannabinoids in children with autism. While some anecdotal evidence supports the positive effects of cannabis on autism, psychiatrists must approach the topic with caution due to the limited scientific evidence.

The Way Forward: Educating Patients and Families

As medical professionals, it's essential to educate ourselves on cannabis use for autism treatment, despite the lack of conclusive evidence. By being well-informed, we can guide our patients and their families, help them weigh the potential benefits and risks, and avoid seeking unreliable advice from unregulated sources.

While the potential of cannabis as a treatment for autism is intriguing, more high-quality research is necessary before we can confidently recommend its use. In the meantime, we must communicate openly with our patients about the current limitations and be cautious when considering alternative treatments for ASD.

In conclusion, the intersection of cannabis and autism is a complex and evolving field that requires further investigation. While there are some promising studies, the medical community must tread carefully and be transparent with patients about the current lack of evidence. By staying informed and guiding patients through the available information, we can better support families on their journey to finding the most appropriate treatments for autism spectrum disorders.


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