Medical cannabis oil has successfully treated autism in animal models. This treatment improves both behavioral and biochemical parameters of autism. The results of the surprising study, led by Ph.D. student Shani Polegwere, were published in Translational Psychology by Nature.
“The usual process for testing new medications involves research in petri dishes, followed by animal models and finally a clinical study in humans,” explains Prof. Daniel Offen from Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University.
“With medicinal cannabis, the process has been reversed: treatments began in humans. Since cannabis is not defined as a medication, trials have already been conducted in children and adolescents with autism – without any preliminary studies addressing issues like the effect of cannabis on biochemical processes in the brain, spinal fluid or blood, and who can benefit from which type of cannabis oil. There is a great deal of misinformation on the subject of medicinal cannabis and autism, and Shani Peleg’s doctoral project represents pioneering basic research with regard to treating autism with cannabis oil.”
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social impairments and compulsive behaviors. Cases range from moderate to severe, and the causes are genetic as well as environmental. A mutation in a single gene called Shank3 is connected with around 1% of all autism cases. In the current study, researchers at TAU examined the efficacy of cannabis oil in relieving autistic symptoms using animal models with a Shank3 mutation.
“We saw that cannabis oil has a favorable effect on compulsive and anxious behaviors in model animals,” says Shani Poleg. “According to the prevailing theory, autism involves overarousal of the brain which causes compulsive behavior. In the lab, in addition to the behavioral results, we saw a significant decrease in the concentration of the arousing neurotransmitter glutamate in the spinal fluid – which can explain the reduction in behavioral symptoms.”
In an attempt to ascertain which components of cannabis oil ease autistic symptoms, the researchers discovered that THC, which produces the euphoric sensation associated with cannabis use, is useful in treating autism, maybe even in trace amounts.
“Clinical trials testing cannabis treatments for autism usually involve strains containing very large amounts of CBD – due to this substance’s anti-inflammatory properties, and because it does not produce a sense of euphoria,” says Poleg. “We were surprised to discover that treatment with cannabis oil that contains THC but does not contain CBD produces equal or even better effects – both behavioral and biochemical. Moreover, our results suggest that CBD alone has no impact on the behavior of model animals.”
“This is of course an initial study,” concludes Poleg. “But we hope that through our basic research we will be able to improve clinical treatments. Our study shows that when treating autism with medicinal cannabis oil there is no need for high contents of either CBD or THC. We observed significant improvement in behavioral tests following treatments with cannabis oil containing small amounts of THC and observed no long-term effects in cognitive or emotional tests conducted a month and a half after the treatment began.”