Can cannabis curb the challenges of autism?

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Cannabis has long been a contentious substance in many societies. Holding a class B classification in the United Kingdom (UK) under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act,  possession of cannabis can result in a prison sentence of up to five years or a hefty fine. However, in late 2018, the UK relaxed its regulations about whether products derived from cannabis, such as pills, capsules, and oils (but not the smoking of cannabis) can be prescribed by doctors to patients. The ruling was in response to public outcry over Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, two young epilepsy sufferers, being denied access to cannabis oil. Today, research from Israel offers strong evidence for another therapeutic use for cannabis: providing comfort and independence for children on the autism spectrum.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an extensive developmental disability that is expressed in almost all dimensions of the child’s development. Children on the autism spectrum experience difficulties in communication, social interaction and processing of sensory information. While autism is a lifelong disability, not a disease that can be cured, individuals on the spectrum still often require additional support to go about their daily lives. Available services include speech/language therapy and educational support, but there is still a need for greater therapeutic interventions in many cases.

The research, undertaken at Ben-Gurion University, analysed data taken from 188 patients on the autism spectrum, all under the age of 18. The scientists aimed to assess outcomes in patients’ general quality of life as well as in specific areas, including ability to dress and shower, quality of sleep, and concentration, following six weeks of treatment with cannabis oil containing 30 per cent cannabidiol oil (CBD) and 1.5 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis that produces the feeling of being “high.” One common misconception about medicinal cannabis is the notion that all patients are becoming intoxicated by their treatments. In this case, the non-psychoactive CBD component of the treatment outweighed the psychoactive THC by a factor of twenty. While THC is widely considered therapeutic as a painkiller and is legal in many countries, there are plenty of treatments created from cannabis that contain virtually no THC at all.

When evaluating patients’ quality of life after six months of treatment, 30  per cent of patients reported a significant improvement, 53.7 per cent reported moderate improvement, and only 15 per cent had slight or no change. So, the vast majority of patients noticed an improvement in their overall quality of life after being treated with cannabis.

One specific area in which patients felt significant improvement was the ability to dress and shower independently. Only a quarter (26.4 per cent) reported no difficulty prior to treatment while 42.9 per cent improved their ability to dress and shower independently at six months. Cannabis oil medication also significantly improved sleep and concentration. Good sleep and concentration were reported by 3.3 per cent and zero per cent respectively at the start of the experiment verses 24.7 per cent and 14 per cent during an active treatment.

Though this is promising evidence for the therapeutic uses of cannabis for patients with autism, Dr. Victor Novack, of the BGU-Soroka Clinical Cannabis Research Institute, says that further research is required to fully understand the potential benefits.

“While this study suggests that cannabis treatment is safe and can improve ASD symptoms and improve ASD patients’ quality of life, we believe that double blind placebo-controlled trials are crucial for a better understanding of the cannabis effect on ASD patients,” he says.

While cannabis in some forms is now legal for medical use in the UK, it is still not entirely clear how far-reaching the therapeutic benefits may be. However, for many of the patients in this study, cannabis very much provided a welcome relief from the daily challenges that arise living life on the autism spectrum.

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Ella Mercer.

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