Israeli Researchers Show Medical Cannabis Can Relieve Autism Symptoms

January 31, 2019

5 min read

Medical cannabis has been said by researchers to relieve symptoms of numerous physical diseases including pain and muscle spasticity due to multiple sclerosis; pain and spasms from spinal cord injuries; loss of appetite and pain from cancer; and anorexia, weight loss and severe nausea in HIV/AIDS patients.

It is also reported to be effective in easing; minimizing pain and depression for inflammatory bowel disease; improving sleep quality in people with insomnia and reducing drowsiness; ad improving the quality of life in terminal patients.

In Israel alone, there are tens of thousands of patients with various disorders who have obtained licenses from the Health Ministry to purchase– at pharmacies – supplies of medical cannabis, and the government has just decided to allow exports of the plant in its various forms.

Now, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba have proven that medical cannabis is effective in relieving symptoms in people with autism.

Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, a doctoral student at the Clinical Research Institute of Cannabis at BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Soroka and Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Na’ama Saban of the research department of Tikkun Olam Ltd. and colleagues have just published in their findings in the prestigious journal Nature Scientific Reports.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) worldwide. Recently anecdotal evidence of possible therapeutic effects of cannabis products has emerged. The aim of this study,” the researchers wrote, was “to characterize the epidemiology of ASD patients receiving medical cannabis treatment and to describe its safety and efficacy.”

Israel is one of the world’s leading countries in medical marijuana research. (Credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

They analyzed the data prospectively collected as part of the treatment program of 188 ASD patients aged 18 years treated with medical cannabis between 2015 and 2017. They found that that medical cannabis is a good, safe and effective option in relieving the symptoms of autism, including seizures, tics, depression, restlessness and tantrums. Overall, more than 80% of their parents reported a significant or moderate improvement in their children.

ASD is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear during the first two years of life.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, ASD patients have difficulty with communication and interaction with other people; restricted interests and repetitive behaviors; and symptoms that interfere with the person’s ability to function properly in school, work and other areas of life

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. ASD occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups. Although ASD can last a lifetime, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function.

Dr. Gal Meiri of the Center for Autism in the Negev, who participated in the study, explained: “Treatment of most patients was based on cannabis oil containing 30% CBD (cannabidiol) and 1.5% THC (the psychoactive substance). Structured questionnaires for patients and their parents examined symptoms, overall assessment and side effects while taking medical cannabis.

“In an effort to improve symptoms in autistic patients as well as quality of life, we believe that double studies with placebo are essential for a better understanding of the effect of cannabis on ASD patients,” added Novak.

Meiri and Novak are members of the Negev Autism Center, a research-clinical partnership between Ben-Gurion University and Soroka University Hospital, and a database of all children in the Negev who have been diagnosed with autism since 2015.

After six months of treatment, 30% of patients reported significant improvement, 53.7% reported mild improvement and only 15% reported mild or no change at all. Quality of life, mood and ability to perform routine activities were examined before and after treatment. A good quality of life was reported by 31.3% of patients before treatment, while after half a year, it doubled to 66.8%. Positive mood was reported by parents before treatment and was 42%, followed by 63.5%.

The ability to dress and shower independently was significantly improved by treatment. Of the 26.4% who reported no problem in this activity before treatment, this percentage jumped to 42.9% after treatment. Cannabis-based drugs also improved sleep and increased concentration.

 The Negev Autism Center is made up of scientists and physicians who work on autism and other developmental disorders in the Israeli Negev (the country’s southern district with a population of some one million people). The center is devoted to facilitating interdisciplinary research about the causes, etiologies, diagnosis and treatment of autism. Its focus is on translational research that will have practical medical impact, yielding better diagnosis techniques and treatment options for autism. 

The staff believe that the integration of scientific knowledge with clinical experience will lead to important breakthroughs including identification of environmental risk factors of autism, new techniques for earlier autism diagnosis, and development of specialized therapies for specific sub-groups of children with autism.  

The main goal of the research center is to understand the underlying biology of autism given that autism is not a single disorder, but rather a family of distinct biological disorders that are associated with different genetic and environmental causes and risk factor.The staff study these issues with a specific emphasis on early development from pregnancy to the age of eight years.

In addition, the center develops educational programs for pupils, faculty and the general community who wish to learn about autism. As part of this effort, they hold bi-weekly seminars at Soroka’s preschool psychiatry unit where they discuss different scientific and clinical issues related to autism.

Among their current projects is the study using special cameras of body movements of children as they interact with a clinician during the test that is used to assess autism. They also take saliva samples from the whole family of an autism patient and conduct whole genome sequencing to identify potential cross-ethnic differences in genetic susceptibility to autism; their data will incorporated into large international efforts that collect thousands of samples worldwide to understand the genomics of autism.

Their eye-tracking study of toddlers suspected of autism are asked to view several short movies in a 15-to-20-minute experiment. These movies contain different types of stimuli that measure social preference, reliability and stability of eye movements and spatial attention. This gives the researchers information about what interests the child and about the motor development of the child. A major goal of such research is to develop tools for early identification of autism using eye tracking and for examining how social preference and motor behaviors change in response to different treatments. 

Since a considerable percentage of children with autism in their database were born after high-risk pregnancies, the center’s staff are conducting a retrospective assessment of ultrasound and other data to see if they can identify early brain abnormalities that may be specific to high risk pregnancies where the child eventually developed autism.

The specialists also record overnight electroencephalogram data of rom naturally sleeping children at the Soroka Sleep Lab. This study reveals important information about each child’s brain activity during sleep, potential sleep problems, and potential existence of epileptic-like brain activity that is more evident during sleep. We believe that an EEG exam may be very important for identifying certain subtypes of autism who may be better candidates for specific clinical trials.  

The Negev Autism Center even uses computerized algorithms to examine photos of children with ASD to find out whether some of the children may have characteristic facial features that distinguish them from their peers who do not have autism.

All in all, Israeli physicians and researchers are among the leaders in autism research that will benefit the one percent of people in the world who have autism and their families.

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