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In January 2019, research out of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, in conjunction with Soroka University Medical Center in Israel, looked into the potential benefit of cannabis in treating children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

According to the CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability that causes significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Individuals with ASD experience difficulty learning, paying attention, and reacting to stimuli. Their symptoms can include trouble relating to or interacting with other people, or avoidance of physical contact, and an inability to empathize, role play, or express emotion. Individuals with ASD are also prone to behavioral outbreaks and rages that can be dangerous to themselves and others around them. The cause of ASD remains unknown but researchers agree that there are likely multiple root causes tied into genetics, biology, and an individual’s environmental influences. What is known is that children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk of developing it, as are children born to older parents. Individuals with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis or fragile X syndrome are also at a greater risk of having ASD. A diagnosis of ASD can lead to a huge financial burden for families; in addition to medical costs, intensive behavioral interventions for children with ASD can cost between $40,000 and $60,000 per child per year. There is no cure for ASD.

The researchers at BGU noted that over the last 3 decades, there has been a 3-fold increase in the number of children diagnosed with ASD worldwide. With no spectrum-specific medical treatments available, specialists who work with these children focus primarily on early detection and intervention, lessening disruptive behaviors, and teaching self-management skills to help individuals achieve greater independence. Medications prescribed for treating particular symptoms include (but are not limited to) anti-psychotics, anti-epileptics, hynotics, sedatives, and antidepressants to treat the array of interrelated conditions that can present in an individual with ASD.

A previous study of 60 ASD children treated with cannabis in 2018 reported significant improvement in disruptive behavior, communication problems, and anxiety. The researchers set out to replicate the results using a larger sample size. The study recruited 188 ASD patients, aged 5 to 18, through referrals by 26 board certified physicians. The patients received oral dosages of cannabis oil consisting of 30% CBD and 1.5% THC, three times daily. After 1 month of usage, the parents of 48.7% of the patients reported significant improvement and 31.1% reported moderate improvement. After 6 months of treatment, 30.1% of the patients reported significant improvement and 53.7% reported moderate improvement.

At the start of the study, quality of life, mood and ability to perform activities of daily living, were assessed prior to starting treatment and at the 6-month mark after treatment. Prior to treatment, good quality of life was reported by 31.3% of patients; after 6 months of treatment, 66.8% reported good quality of life. Additionally, positive mood was reported by the parents on 42% of the children before treatment; after treatment it was 63.5%. The ability to dress and shower independently was significantly improved from 26.4% to 42.9% at the six month mark post-treatment. Other symptoms that improved significantly were sleep quality and ability to concentrate. Of the 188 subjects, 13 patients had been on active treatment for seizures; at the 6-month post-treatment mark, 11 of the 13 reported disappearances of the symptoms and the remaining 2 reported improvement.

The researchers noted that the cannabis treatment for their patients appeared to be well-tolerated, safe, and seemingly effective for relieving symptoms such as seizures, depression, restlessness, and rage attacks. Overall, more than 80% of the parents reported a significant or moderate improvement in their child’s assessment. The exact mechanism of the cannabis’ effects in ASD patients is not fully understood. There exist theories that attempt to explain the effectivity. One prominent hypothesis relates to the cannabis’ ability to enhance neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin release but more research is needed to explore the mechanisms further. The study concluded that CBD-enriched treatment of ASD patients significantly improved behavioral symptoms and that these results are consistent with other similar studies.