Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or Autism) is a developmental disorder that is characterized by several communication and behavior markers. It can range from mild to severe with a range of symptoms that usually start showing by two years of age.  

 The rapid increase in the prevalence of autism, as much as 150% since 2000, has put a spotlight on ASD in recent years. According to the CDC, about 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with autism as of 2014.  

Despite this growing health crisis, medical research has yet to fully identify the causes of ASD, making it extremely difficult to develop effective treatments.  

Large CBD and Autism Study Announced at UC San Diego 

The UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) has recently announced a new study planned to begin in late 2018 that will take a closer look cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, as a potentially safe and effective treatment protocol for behavioral problems and neural dysfunction associated with ASD.  

This study is a landmark interdisciplinary approach including lead investigators Doris Trauner, M.D., Gabriel Silva, Ph.D., and Alysson Muotri, Ph.D. Together they represent expertise in various fields including pediatrics, neuroscience, bioengineering, and cellular and molecular medicine.  

30 autistic children will participate in the double-blind trial, ranging from 8-12 years of age. The study will investigate three major questions:  

  • Is CBD safe and well tolerated? 
  • Does CBD help with symptoms of ASD? 
  • Does CBD alter neurotransmitters and improve brain connectivity and/or neuro-inflammation (and if so, how)?

The research is being supported by a generous $4.7 million grant awarded by The Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, working with the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. 

Building on Previous Research 

The UCSD study is not the first to investigate the potential therapeutic effects of cannabidiol on children with autism. Although still in the nascent phase, several early studies have shown there is reason to be hopeful that cannabidiol may show promise as a candidate for treating ASD patients.  

One of the interesting findings in very recent research on ASD is that the endocannabinoid system may indeed be implicated in the regulation of key immune system responses that may be a causal factor in the disorder. One 2014 in vitro study, for example, found that  GcMAF, a naturally occurring endocannabinoid, can normalize CB2R gene expression in autistic children.  

Further studies have confirmed this finding, arguing that the endocannabinoid system is a novel target for future therapies for ASD. In fact, the correlation is so strong that reduced expression of the CB2R receptor may even be an effective tool in quantitatively diagnosing autism 

In addition, CBD has been demonstrated in numerous studies to improve motor coordination and sleep, and have antipsychotic, anti-anxiety, and anticonvulsant properties. Given that all of these pathologies tend to be present to differing extents in people with ASD, there is a real reason to be excited about the potential of cannabinoids such as CBD to be developed into targeted treatments with further medical research.  

Although pre-clinical and clinical trials are limited, expect to see more in the future.  

 

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