Children’s Hospital will study medical marijuana’s effect on children with autism
An upcoming study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will be the first of its kind in the United States to examine the benefits of medical marijuana in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study is in partnership with an Australian biopharmaceutical company called Zelda Therapeutics, who will be funding the study.
Athena Zupp, the director of Children’s Hospital’s Center for Clinical Pharmacology, told philly.com that “the hospital will not provide any cannabis products to children. This is truly an observational study. We’re not giving them anything. We’re just gathering data to educate ourselves.” The researchers will be working with children who are already covered under Pennsylvania’s Safe Harbor Provision. (Wood, 2017) The study is expected to begin early this year.
Can Medical Marijuana Treat Autism Symptoms?
Many parents of autistic children are advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana to help treat some of the symptoms of autism including reducing anxiety, self-injurious behaviors, sleep dysregulation, and trouble with social interactions.
Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) is a parent advocacy group with chapters in seven U.S. states (Arizona, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa, and Illinois). MAMMA’s goal is to give all children with autism legal access to medical marijuana under the care of a physician. The group’s website provides testimonials from 10 families who claim marijuana has greatly helped their child’s symptoms. Several of these families testimonials consider themselves “medical refugees” moving across state lines so their children will be eligible for the use of medical marijuana for seizures and other qualifying conditions. Other families submitted testimonials anonymously and say they will continue to use marijuana illegally until legislation is passed in their states or autism is considered a qualifying condition. Most of the testimonials praise marijuana for helping their children reduce self-injurious behaviors and regulate their moods and sleep, with some families claiming that the plant reduced their child’s seizures, a common co-occurring symptom of autism. The families affiliated with MAMMA and other similar groups say medical marijuana alleviates their child from the side effects of traditional pharmaceuticals sometimes prescribed for children with autism including antipsychotic medications.
Medications traditionally used to help children with ASD
In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, atypical antipsychotics are described as, “indispensable in the treatment of a variety of symptoms in autism.” The study examines the efficacy of haloperidol and risperidone for treating the behavioral symptoms commonly associated with autism including aggression, anger, and self-injurious behaviors. It concludes that the medications can alleviate these behaviors when behavioral interventions are ineffective, but warns that potential side effects must be considered and weighed. The most common side effects listed include weight gain, hyperprolactinemia (elevated serum prolactin), sedation, adverse cognitive effects, and tardive dyskinesia (involuntary, repetitive body movements). (Posey, Stigler, Erickson, & McDougle, 2008) While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved these medications for use in children with autism, some parents are still wary of these potential side effects.
International studies focus on children and medical marijuana
In January 2017, Dr. Aran, the director of the neuro-pediatric unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, spearheaded the inaugural clinical trial to determine medical marijuana’s effects on children with autism. The study followed 120 children and young adults with autism as they received cannabidiol (CBD) oil. This compound contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is high in cannabinoids and is not psychoactive, therefore children receiving the oil did not feel “high.” Dr. Aran hopes to take the guesswork out of how medical marijuana helps children with autism so that they can be treated with more precision and lower risk of potential unknown effects with prolonged use. The results of this study are expected to be released in the coming months.
How to advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana for autism
Parents interested in advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in their area or having autism listed as a qualifying condition can do so in a variety of ways. Contacting your local representatives via email, phone call, or setting up a meeting is an important step in letting your government know that it is an important issue to you. The more hospitals conduct studies of the impact of medical marijuana on children with autism, the more information will be available to parents and lawmakers. Encouraging hospitals to begin their own studies and trials is crucial in gathering the information needed to learn more. Finally, joining a group like MAMMA could help you stay informed on new studies and advocacy opportunities.
Wood, S. (2017, December 11). Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to study medical marijuana and autism. Retrieved 2018, from http://www.philly.com/philly/business/cannabis/childrens-hospital-to-study-medical-marijuana-and-autism-20171211.html
Posey, D. J., Stigler, K. A., Erickson, C. A., & McDougle, C. J. (2008, January 02).
Antipsychotics in the treatment of autism. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2171144/
Katherine G. Hobbs is a freelance journalist and university student studying English, with an emphasis on journalism, and psychology. She is interested in the impact of having a special needs child on the family dynamic. Katherine is dedicated to bringing awareness of resources to families and providing help to those who love their autistic children. You can find her online at katherineghobbs.com.