Deep Dive: Cannabis for Autism

Updated: Oct 9

A January 2022 study entitled "Autism & Associated Disorders: Cannabis as a Potential Therapy" that was published in the journal Frontiers in Bioscience—Elite investigated the potential benefits and positive outcomes of the therapeutic application of cannabis for autism.


The following 1600-word deep dive is provided at no cost as an example of the type of homework assignments featured in Higher Learning LV's forthcoming certification course Cannabis Foundation.

"Here we present a comprehensive review of 1) changes in the endocannabinoid system in autism, 2) [the] effect of cannabis on autism, and 3) the effect of cannabis on autism-associated disorders," declared the scientists.


"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of disabilities with impairments in physical, verbal, and behavior areas," reported the study. The study lamented the lack of effective pharmaceutical treatments for the condition.


"Despite the growing frequency of autism, no medicine has been formed for the management of primary symptoms. The most frequently prescribed drugs are off-label," noted the research. According to the study's authors, the terms "autism" and "ASD" are used interchangeably in the United States.


Role of the ECS in Autism

The study's authors said that "an advanced tactic for the treatment of autism" is necessary to compensate for this lack of conventional pharmaceutical treatments. "The endocannabinoid system [ECS] has a central role in ruling emotion and social behaviors," reported the researchers. They noted how "dysfunctions of the ECS donate to the behavioral deficits in autism."


The scientists noted how "dysfunctions of the ECS donate to the behavioral deficits in autism."

The research noted how the ECS presents "a potential target for the development of a novel autism therapy" and that cannabis and "associated compounds" such as terpenes and flavonoids have contributed to "substantial research attention" to the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis use for "neurobehavioral and neurological syndromes."

The study's authors declared their formal goal was to "examine the potential benefits of medical cannabis and related compounds in the treatment of ASD and concurrent disorders." They cited animal studies that have revealed that "modulation of the endocannabinoid system has been shown to improve certain ASD-associated social and cognitive impairments."


Understanding ASD

The study noted that ASD results in a wide range of symptoms that cannot easily be categorized and that are commonly stereotyped. "The intellectual capability of individuals with ASDs is highly variable and ranges from severe impairment to superior performance," reported the scientists.


"In the United States, the prevalence of ASD is approximately 4.5 times greater in boys than in girls," reported the study. Additional analysis reveals that ASD affects "all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, although white children are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than black or Hispanic."


"In the United States, the prevalence of ASD is approximately 4.5 times greater in boys than in girls," reported the study. Additional analysis reveals that ASD affects "all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups."

Autism Statistics

Data from the World Health Organization reveal that, globally, about one in 160 children has ASD. The study explained that autism "is a behavioral diagnosis, the exact cause of which is unknown," but that several elements that influence it (or "play a role in its pathogenesis") include environment, biology, and genetics.


The researchers noted that 15–20 percent of ASD cases were found "to be associated with genetic mutations." Other gene mutation-related conditions "shown to be associated with ASD include tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, Angelman syndrome, and Rett syndrome."

Image courtesy Leafwize Naturals


The study identified some known causes of autism, including "immune dysfunction and inflammation" and fetal exposure to antiepileptic drugs.


State Policies

The study noted that, at the time of its publication, "36 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have comprehensive medical cannabis programs." ASD was a qualifying condition in 12 of these states, including "self-injurious or aggressive autistic behavior."


ECS Changes in Autistic Patients

The study's authors reiterated that ASD is a "multifactorial disorder [that] manifests due to a combination of genetic, immunological, and environmental factors" and that it results in "communication and behavioral problems."


ASD is a "multifactorial disorder [that] manifests due to a combination of genetic, immunological, and environmental factors" and that it results in "communication and behavioral problems."

The research explained how the central nervous system is an important part of the ECS and that it features relatively dense CB1 cellular receptors that are concentrated in the "cerebellum, hippocampus, and the basal ganglia" of the brain, all of which are, coincidentally, "areas of dysfunction in autism."


The study noted that autism "is also associated with dysregulation of the immune system." In addition to the CB1 receptors described above, the ECS also features CB2 receptors that are most dense outside of the brain and central nervous system, the area dubbed by scientists "the periphery." CB2 receptors are most dense in the organs, glands, and tissues associated with the immune system within the periphery (a vast region of the body).

The study noted that various aspects of CB2 receptors and endocannabinoid enzymes "were significantly changed in animal models of autism" and that this demonstrates the involvement of the ECS in "ASD-associated immunological disturbances."


Studies involving children with autism have revealed "alterations of the immune system." The present study reported that severe forms of autism that feature "more pronounced stereotypical behaviors" are characterized by greater inflammation (in the form of "pro-inflammatory cytokines").


Cannabinoids to Treat Autism

The study reported that cannabidiol (CBD) "is effective in the treatment of some neurodevelopmental conditions, including ASD" and that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can produce "a positive effect on the neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism."


CBD & THC for Autism

It reported that "chronic CBD administration rescued several autistic-like behaviors, [including] anxiety- and depression-like behavior, poor social interaction, and increased rearing behavior—as well as reference memory and working memory" in a mouse study of autism.


Special consideration must be given to any drug or compound that is administered to a child. "CBD did not induce any adverse effects on motor function," reported the scientists, "giving further support for the benefits and safety of using this cannabinoid as ASD therapy."


"Chronic CBD administration rescued several autistic-like behaviors, including anxiety- and depression-like behavior and poor social interaction."

CBDV for Autism

The researchers noted that a widely studied nonpsychoactive cannabinoid in addition to CBD is its chemical cousin, CBDV (called the varin version; all major cannabinoids feature a varin sibling).

Although the mechanism of actions of CBDV is still unclear, it was reported that CBDV "features anti-inflammatory activities." It was also revealed that CBDV increased levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide. "As a result, CBDV restored the compromised general health status, the behavioral deficit, the sociability, and the brain weight and produced a rescue of memory deficits in this animal model," reported the study's authors.


In a separate study involving rats, CBDV was shown to repair "hippocampal endocannabinoid signaling [in the brain] and neuroinflammation." This cannabinoid also produced an increase in the number (density} of CB1 receptors.


"ASD-like behavioral changes were repaired by CBDV treatment."

Regarding CBDV for autism, the study concluded that "ASD-like behavioral changes were repaired by CBDV treatment" and that the benefits delivered by this cannabinoid "could be related to the restoration of the ECS abnormalities in the hippocampus [of the brain]."


Clinical Studies Reviewed

The scientific report noted that cannabis features an "extensive range of clinical applications, including treatment of multiple sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, Parkinson's disease [and, by extension, Alzheimer's disease], epilepsy, glaucoma, nausea, depression, and pain."


Of all clinical trials reviewed, the study reiterated that autism "is associated with disruption of the endocannabinoid system" and that some cannabinoids have the ability to modulate the ECS "and, therefore, improve behavioral deficits in autism."


Anecdotal Evidence

The application of cannabinoids for autism is characterized by "a growing interest on social media." The study reported that numerous self-reported anecdotal cases reveal that "ASD children who failed traditional pharmacologic therapy have responded [positively] to cannabis treatment." It added that the parents of these autistic children who have resorted to using cannabinoids such as CBD and THC "have reported remarkable improvements."


The boy was given only six months to live. Six years following his diagnosis of terminal and his first use of cannabinoids, he was "sociable and successful."

One such anecdotal report noted how an autistic child spoke its first words "after receiving cannabis oil and finally developed...language skills." In another such case, a 10-year-old boy with autism found an FDA-approved medication to deliver "life-threatening toxicities." He was given only six months to live. Six years following the boy's diagnosis of terminal and his first use of cannabinoids, he was "sociable and successful."

Another case involved a group of boys with severe autism who were treated with various conventional therapies that "did not result in alleviating autistic symptoms." The group demonstrated "dramatic improvement in communication skills and interactions" after treatment with cannabinoids.


"A boy with a brain tumor, autism, severe seizures, and self-destructive behavior was treated with cannabis and showed remarkable progress," reported the study.

One case involved a 20-year-old man with ADS who smoked cannabis and experienced improved sociability and vocabulary while also reducing his anxiety. "Another boy with a brain tumor, autism, severe seizures, and self-destructive behavior was treated with cannabis and showed remarkable progress," reported the study.


Although cannabis is comprised of hundreds of different types of chemical compounds, the study revealed that it has been found to be a "safe and effective choice" to treat autism and alleviate ASD symptoms.


More Research Needed

The study's authors noted that modern clinical studies involving human participants "have shown promising results of cannabis treatment in ASD and associated disorders," but that little is known about the mechanical underpinnings of these benefits.


"More clinical investigations are needed to discover the efficacy, safety, and dosing" involved in the use of cannabinoids or other components of the controversial herb for autism and related neurological conditions.


View the original study.


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