Previous success from treating epilepsy with Cannabinoids now motivates doctors to investigate the plant’s effectiveness in treating symptoms of autism.
Montefiore Medical Center in New York and GW Pharmaceuticals are examining the effects of a cannabis compound when administered to children on the autism spectrum. The cannabis compound referred to as cannabidivarin (CBDV) is a non-psychoactive chemical that does not cause a “high” when consumed.
In a 47 acre greenhouse – close to the size of 42 football fields – GW is developing and delivering strains of medicinal cannabis. It’s an operation that has been extremely challenging to master on such a large scale.
Leading the pilot research project is Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Spectrum Program and Anxiety and Depression Program at Montefiore Hospital. The possibility of treating the symptoms associated with autism originated when the FDA approved Epidoliolex in 2018. Epidiolex is a CBD-infused oral-based medication designed to help patients as young as two-years-old treat epilepsy disorders.
Epidiolex proved tremendously successful in treating epilepsy patients. Not only did the success influence the European Commission to approve Epidoliolex, but it also sparked motivation to develop a similar treatment for other disorders. As it turns out, another disorder that shares similar behavioural symptoms to epilepsy is autism.
Hollander and his team will be investigating the possibility of treating autism symptoms, which include abnormal body posturing, tone of voice, behavioural disturbances, inappropriate social interaction and more. No cure currently exists for autism, but Hollander believes CBDV could be a breakthrough in remedying behavioural symptoms linked to the disorder.
Some experts are less optimistic regarding the effectiveness of cannabis-based medicines in treating autism behaviours. Dr. Alexander Kolevzon, clinical director of the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai, is skeptical due to the wide range of symptoms that are present on the autism spectrum.
Other researchers are more open-minded about the possibilities, but less eager to exercise the administration of cannabis compounds. The program director of Child Behavioral Interventions at the Emory Autism Center, Michael Morrier supports the research project, but he’s hoping that patients and families will continue with traditional autism behavioural therapies as more evidence for cannabis medicine develops.
“Anything that’s new that can be something to help a family or an individual to really be a meaningful member of their home, community, school and society is going to be helpful,” Morrier explained. “I would just caution that people don’t just jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘This is a cure all, let’s do it,’ because we really don’t know what are the characteristics it works for, what are the behaviours it works for.”
The study began last April, and the clinical trial plans to document results on 100 participants, ages 5-18, for the duration of 84 days (12 weeks) of treatments through June 2021. It’s roughly estimated that the study results will be finalized by September of 2021, but a lot more research is still needed before any potential verdicts arise.
Hollander is hopeful that the research could lead to supporting cannabis medicine for treating autism, and directly helping younger patients like 14-year-old Carlos Rodriguez.
Carlos was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at four years old. He’s always struggled to adapt to new routines, and is easily frightened by large crowds and loud noises, sending him into an angry tantrum. After nearly ten years of experimenting with various medications to ease his behavioural symptoms, Carlos and his mother Maribel Gonzalez are constantly searching for alternative treatments.
“I’m trying to find something that’s going to help my child,” says Maribel. “Because, at the end of the day, even though he may have these disabilities, I still want my child to be somebody, do something in life. And if there’s something out there that can help him reach that goal, I’ll be in line.”
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