Cannabis and Autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Cannabis
Autism spectrum disorder (the spectrum term being used since it can display a great variety of different symptoms), commonly known as autism, is a developmental disorder caused by different factors, mostly unknown. There is no current treatment of known cure for autism, mainly because the mechanisms of its pathogenesis are not fully understood. There are, however, different therapies and drugs that can be used to tackle the symptoms and improve the capabilities of patients with autism. There is also a commitment from some sectors of society to help those families with autistic children, so that they can grow with autonomy and blend into society.
About Cannabis and Autism, there are plenty of evidences. As well as many rigorous scientific studies suggesting that the activation of the endocannabinoid system with natural or synthetic cannabinoids may contribute to improve this condition, particularly among children.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved CDB for the treatment of epilepsy, since it has been shown to modulate electrical impulses within the brain. There are currently numerous ongoing clinical trials testing of Cannabis and Autism treatment.
A recently published study using an animal model of autism in rodents showed that there was a significant improvement in the social behavior of the animals upon treatment with 10-20 mg of CBD per kilogram of weight.
Another recent study also showed that autistic children present a deregulation of the immune system and, therefore, an altered immune response. It has been shown that the endocannabinoid receptor CB2 is overexpressed in immune system cells of children with ASD. It is also known that autism involves neuroanatomical alterations in some areas of the brain, such as the cortex, the cerebellum, the hippocampus and the amygdala. There are also functional alterations that are responsible for the social deficits associated with ASD.
In order to understand why treatment with CBD may contribute to the treatment of ASD, it is necessary to understand its effects on the central nervous system (CNS). First of all, CBD modulates the levels of neurotransmitters such as glutamate (activator) and inhibits the levels of GABA. It has been shown that the levels of these two neurotransmitters are altered in people with ASD.
A recent study measured the levels of these neurotransmitters using magnetic resonance in 17 ASD patients and 17 healthy individuals after the administration of either 600 mg CBD or a placebo. It was shown that the modulation of the Glutamatergic-GABAergic system differs in ASD patients that presented decreased GABA in the prefrontal area.
Another study on Cannabis and Autism analyzed data from 188 patients treated with cannabis between 2015 and 2017, mostly oil-based with a composition of 30% CBD, 1.5% THC, showed that after a 6 month treatment, 30.1% of the patients presented a significant improvement of the symptoms, 53.7% had a moderate improvement, 6.4% a small improvement and 8.6% of the patients remained the same. According to this study, cannabis was also well tolerated, safe and effective in patients with ASD.
The contribution of Cannabis and Autism studies, and on the endocannabinoid system response, was also investigated by comparing with children without ASD. Since the endocannabinoid system modulates the immune response, and particularly those responses triggered by CB2 receptors, it may become an excellent therapeutic target for the treatment of autism. Therefore, the activation of these receptors using cannabis may contribute to improve the immune response. These results complement those of another study that showed an alteration of the immunity in the brain in patients with autism. It has been shown that patients with ASD present low plasma levels of endocannabinoids, suggesting that the lack of these compounds might have an important role in this disorder.
Since CBD may alter social behavior and it is effective for the treatment of behavioral disorders, and since autistic people display a reduced social behavior, it was proposed that the administration of cannabinoids might be beneficial for these patients. It is known that the endocannabinoid anandamide is needed for the activation of CB1 receptors as well as to experience the gratifying feeling of socialization. Autistic mice treated with CBD were more prone to establish social contacts and less prone to stay in solitude. In addition, some other studies have also shown a connection between endocannabinoids signaling and oxytocin, an essential hormone during birth that also contributes to reinforce the parental and social bonding. A few clinical trials have proved that the nasal administration of oxytocin may have a therapeutic effect on ASD.
Therefore, the signaling mediated by the endocannabinoid system has been shown to play an essential role in numerous neuronal disorders, opening up the possibility of using it to treat such disorders. It is likely, then, that cannabinoids may be used to treat autism and, since it is a chronic disease, they might contribute to alleviate the symptoms and improve the life quality of patients, increasing their sociability and even turning social relations into something pleasant.
What is ASD or autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (the spectrum term being used since it can display a great variety of different symptoms), commonly known as autism, is a developmental disorder caused by different factors, mostly unknown (although it seems that some genetic and environmental factors, such as the advanced age of progenitors, the intake of toxic compounds and certain drugs during pregnancy or even loss of weight during birth, may play an important role in the progression of the disease. This disorder is characterized by an alteration of behavior, socialization, self-communication and learning. It appears during early childhood and persists during the entire life of the individual. As a curiosity, it seems to affect more males than females (4:1).
In 2001, the neuroscientist Paul Patterson suggested that microbiota, that is, the population of microorganisms living in our guts, had an important role in the occurrence of autism in mice pups. If the mother of the mice suffered from an severe viral infection that elicited an immune response, the pups had a similar behavior to that of autistic children. Previously, it was already common knowledge that women that suffered a severe infection (such as measles or flu) during pregnancy were more prone to have children with autism or schizophrenia. Paul Patterson suggested that the immune response triggered in the mother contributed to the neural development of the child. At the same time, it was also shown that autistic individuals suffered from intestinal disorders and had a somehow different microbiota. In addition, those mothers that suffered an infection during pregnancy also had children with a much more permeable intestinal tract that carry unusual bacteria secreting a toxin (4-EPS, causing anxiety in adult organisms) that reaches the brain (facilitated by the higher permeability of the gut) and caused non-typical behavior. This condition was reversed upon the administration of another bacteria, Bacteroides fragilis, which helped sealing the gut and prevented the toxin from reaching the brain, which contributed to keep under control some of the more severe symptoms of autism.
People with autism present deficiencies in the different aspects discussed above, since they are not interested in communicating with other people (most also present sensory hypersensitivity) or show interest in their surroundings. They can also have repetitive behaviors, similar to those shown by people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD (see more about OCD in “Cannabis and OCD”). They also have unusual interests that grab most of their attention (some autistic children become real experts in whatever grasps their interest). Children with autism that display higher intelligence are aware that something is different with them, which often leads to frustration once they realize they fail to fit into society.
Quality, Autism, Adults
Childhood, Social, society, Treatment
1-Yong, Ed. 2017. Yo Contengo Multitudes. DEBATE EDITORIAL.
3-Premoli, M. et al. Life. Sci. 2019.
4-Pretzsch, CM. et al. Neuropsychopharmacol. 2019
5- Bar-Leu Schleider L. et al. Sci. Rep. 2019
6- Poleg S. et al, Prog. Neuropsychopharmacol. Biol. Psychiatry 2019.
Cannabis and Autism. Analyzed and discussed by Paula Pifarré, PhD. Cannabity Healthcare Scientific Collaborator.