Results of Clinical Trial Show Potential Benefits of Cannabis For Children With Autism

A new clinical trial offered encouraging signs for the use of cannabis extracts on children with autism.

The clinical trial, the results of which were published this month in the journal Molecular Autism, sought to assess the effects of “whole-plant cannabis extract” containing both CBD and THC at a 20:1 ratio and a placebo on a group of young children with autism.

For 12 weeks, the 150 participants received either the extract or the placebo, which was then “followed by a 4-week washout and predetermined cross-over for another 12 weeks to further assess tolerability.”

In their conclusions, the teams of Israeli researchers said that they had “demonstrated for the first time in a placebo-controlled trial that cannabinoid treatment has the potential to decrease disruptive behaviors associated with [autism spectrum disorder], with acceptable tolerability,” as quoted by NORML.

“This is specifically important for the many individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] who are overweight, as cannabinoid treatment was associated with net weight-loss in contrast to the substantial weight gain usually produced by antipsychotics. … These data suggest that cannabinoids should be further investigated in [autism spectrum disorder],” they said. 

“Disruptive behavior on the CGI-I [Clinical Global Impression-Improvement scale] was either much or very much improved in 49 percent [of subjects taking] whole-plant extract versus 21 percent on placebo,” they added, as quoted by NORML. “Median SRS [Social Responsiveness Scale] Total Score (secondary-outcome) improved by 14.9 [points] on whole-plant extract versus 3.6 points after placebo.”

Cannabis And Autism

Cannabis or CBD treatment on individuals with autism continues to be the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry—and the source of intense debate.

In 2019, Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program and Anxiety and Depression Program at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, announced a new clinical trial that would examine the effects of a cannabis compound on patients with autism.

“In some of the animal models that are similar to autism, it was found that CBDV had important effects on social functioning, on decreasing seizures, on increasing cognitive function, and in reducing compulsive or repetitive behavior,” Hollander said at the time. “So for that reason, we wanted to apply that to autism.”

The trial was billed as “the first large clinical study in the United States to test the effectiveness of medical marijuana on certain behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder.”

In states where medical cannabis has been legalized for treatment, policymakers have grappled with whether or not to add autism to the list of qualifying conditions. Last year in Ohio, for example, a state regulatory board voted to reject adding autism as a qualifying condition. 

The board heard a number of public comments both in favor and opposed to the idea. A group of children’s healthcare providers in Ohio strongly opposed the treatment for patients with autism.

“The inclusion of autism and anxiety as conditions has the potential to negatively impact the health and well being of thousands of children in Ohio,” said Sarah Kincaid of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association. “There is little rigorous evidence that marijuana or its derivatives is of benefit for patients with autism and anxiety, but there is a substantial association between cannabis use and the onset or worsening of several psychiatric conditions.”

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