In Pennsylvania, autism is one of the 23 qualifying conditions for medical marijuana certification, but many people are unsure of how the substance benefits autistic individuals. The past decade has seen an increase in the use of cannabis to treat autism. Anecdotally, parents of autistic children have hailed marijuana as a solution to autism-related traits such as behavioral issues and seizures.
Autism and the Endocannabinoid System
Researchers believe that marijuana is effective at helping those with autism due to the way it interacts with our bodies’ endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoids, chemical compounds found in marijuana, bind to our cannabinoid receptors and either block or activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors―THC activates receptors and CBD blocks them.
These cannabinoid receptors are found in neurons in the brain and all over the body. Activation and effect is dependent on where in the body the receptors are located. Depending on which neuron a cannabinoid binds to, when CB1 receptors in the brain are activated they can either decrease or increase neuron excitability. On the other hand, decreased inflammation in the digestive system is caused by the activation of CB2 receptors in that area.
For those with the autism-related fragile X syndrome, a 2013 study published in Nature Medicine found that blocking the CB1 receptor may lead to less seizures and memory issues. Additionally, a clinical trial for a synthetic CBD drug conducted by the pharmaceutical company, Zyberna, indicated that symptoms of anxiety and autism-related behavioral traits improved significantly with the use of cannabinoids.
Even more promising, a 2018 study on the effects of THC and CBD in autistic children showed that a high-ratio of CBD to THC (20:1) helped to massively relieve aggressive outbursts. Using the same high-ratio, a 2019 study demonstrated that the cannabinoids helped improve the quality of life for many of the participants by reducing tics, seizures, outbursts, restlessness, and depression.
Using Cannabis for Autism
Whether you are the parent of an autistic child or are an autistic individual seeking information on medical marijuana, please note that before experimenting with cannabis it is important to speak with your physician. Like any medication, the effects of marijuana can differ greatly from person to person. Other health concerns and medical history should be considered before using medical marijuana, especially conditions related to autism.
Marijuana is an under-studied substance due to the fact that it is still widely considered an illegal substance. Therefore, it is difficult to perform clinical studies and, even more difficult, secure grants for research. We would be remiss to note that while the studies above are promising, much of the evidence surrounding the benefits of cannabis for autism are anecdotal. With that said, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t help you or your child. Cannabis can have profound effects on those who suffer from anxiety and, for decades, has been linked to decreasing seizures.
We can only hope that as time passes and marijuana becomes more widely accepted, studies will be conducted that help to further and legitimize the anecdotal evidence in support of the use of marijuana for autism.