A new Israeli scientific study has shown that the use of medical cannabis in children under 18 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can relieve common symptoms such as seizures, disruptive behaviors, depression, and restlessness.
ASD is a range of neurological disorders that affect communication, behavior, and social skills, and for which there is no specific treatment. According to the World Health Organization, it affects 1 in 160 children worldwide and over the past three decades, there has been a 3-fold increase in the number of children diagnosed, according to the study. Interventions often focus on intensive behavioral therapies that require high levels of care.
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The Israeli study was conducted by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the Soroka University Medical Center, among them Professor Raphael Mechoulam, the renown organic chemist who in 1964 was the first to identify cannabis’ THC compound, the chemical known for causing a “high.” Mechoulam is credited with laying the foundation for scientific research on cannabis and its use in modern medicine.
In the new study, titled “Real life Experience of Medical Cannabis Treatment in Autism: Analysis of Safety and Efficacy” and published in the scientific journal Nature, researchers found that over 80 percent of the parents of the children in the study reported significant or moderate improvement in their child.
The treatment in the majority of the 188 child patients was based on cannabis oil containing 30 percent CBD (Cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive chemical produced by the cannabis plant) and 1.5 percent THC.
All the children in the study, ranging in age from under 5 to 18, were previously diagnosed with ASD by certified neurologist or psychiatrist, as required by Ministry of Health prior to the initiation of the cannabis-based treatment.
The patients were assessed before the cannabis oil treatment, after a month of treatment, and after six months of treatment.
After a month, with 179 patients, 58 patients (48.7 percent) reported significant improvement, 37 (31.1 percent) moderate improvement; 7 patients (5.9 percent) experienced side effects and 17 (14.3 percent) reported that the cannabis did not help them. The side effects they reported included sleepiness (1.6 percent), bad taste and smell of the oil (1.6 percent), restlessness (0.8 percent), reflux (0.8 percent) and lack of appetite (0.8 percent).
After six months, with 155 patients and 93 respondents to a follow-up questionnaire on the treatment, 30.1 percent reported significant improvement, 53.7 percent moderate improvement, 6.4 percent slight improvement, and 8.6 percent said that saw no change in their condition.
The patients also reported that after 6 months of treatment, their quality of life improved (66.8 percent) and 63.5 percent noted a more positive mood. There was also a marked improvement in the ability to dress and shower independent (42.9 percent) and sleep better (24.7 percent).
Symptoms such as restlessness and rage attacks were improved in 72 patients: 91 percent, and 90.3 percent, respectively.
Moreover, while most patients reported an increase of or continued consumption of medications such as antipsychotics and antiepileptics, 34.3 percent reported a decrease after six months of treatment with the cannabis oil.
“Cannabis as a treatment for autism spectrum disorders patients appears to be well-tolerated, safe and seemingly effective option to relieve symptoms, mainly: seizures, tics, depression, restlessness, and rage attacks,” the researchers wrote.
“The compliance with the treatment regimen appears to be high with less than 15 percent stopping the treatment at six months follow-up,” they went on.
But the researchers noted that the study was observational and with no control group, and “therefore no causality between cannabis therapy and improvement in patients’ wellbeing can be established.”
Furthermore, the study was based on a “subjective self-report of the patient’s parent’s observation and not by the patients themselves. These reports, with subjective variables such as quality of life, mood, and general effects, may be biased by the parent’s opinion of the treatment.”
Dr. Victor Novack of the Clinical Cannabis Research Institute at Soroka University Medical Center and a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences at BGU who co-authored the study, said: “While this study suggests that cannabis treatment is safe and can improve ASD symptoms and improve ASD patient’s quality of life, we believe that double-blind placebo-controlled trials are crucial for a better understanding of the cannabis effect on ASD patients.”
The study was funded by Tikun Olam, one of Israel’s biggest medical cannabis companies. Naama Saban of Tikun Olam’s research department also co-authored the study.