A recent study by Israeli researchers showed promising results for cannabis use in treating seizures, anxiety and depression and feelings of restlessness, agitation and rage for those on the autism spectrum. By testing cannabis safety and effectiveness, the researchers, led by Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, concluded “cannabis in ASD patients appears to be well tolerated, safe and effective.”
The study was published in the journal Nature on Jan. 17, and followed 188 people on the spectrum who were 18 years old or younger. Most participants were given cannabis via oil that consisted of 30 percent cannabidiol (CBD) and 1.5 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Dosage amounts and frequencies varied between participants, however, so the study does not provide guidance on dosage recommendations.
At a six-month follow-up on their treatment, 30.1 percent of study participants experienced a significant improvement in their well-being and 53.7 percent reported a moderate improvement. Only 8.6 percent of participants saw no change.
Feelings of restlessness and rage were improved in more than 90 percent of participants. Those who took cannabis also reported a higher quality of life at six months — 66.8 percent described a good quality of life after treatment compared to 31.3 percent before.
Another 34.3 percent of participants were able to decrease the other medications they were taking while they used cannabis, especially antipsychotics, which are often prescribed for epilepsy or seizures. However, because many study participants stayed on a variety of other medications during cannabis treatment, it’s difficult to determine the specific effectiveness of cannabis versus other drugs.
Overall, 25.2 percent of the autistic study participants experienced side effects from the cannabis. They most commonly reported restlessness, along with sleepiness, increased appetite, digestion issues, dry mouth and lack of appetite. Because researchers identified these side effects as “minor,” they concluded cannabis is safe to use.
Cannabis has already been proven effective for those who live with epilepsy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved CBD-based drug Epidiolex in June 2018 for some forms of epilepsy. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has since changed the classification of some CBD products to clear the way for FDA approval, and the U.K. legalized medical marijuana for limited conditions, including some types of epilepsy.
In this study, about 14 percent of participants on the spectrum also had epilepsy. After six months using cannabis, 84.6 percent of 13 autistic participants who reported seizures said they disappeared, while the others said they at least experienced an improvement. Though it’s difficult to study cannabis in the U.S. because of federal regulations, this finding tracks with other studies on how helpful cannabis can be if you experience seizures, along with other conditions.