Autism has no cure so far
Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition, generally emerging in infancy or early childhood. It entails impairments in social interaction, language and communication skills. It triggers rigid and repetitive behavior patterns, along with a range of symptoms. Autism is now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is a lifelong developmental disability and affects the way patients experience the world around them.
Autism has no known cure up to now. However, several treatments and educational approaches have been developed to address certain challenges linked to this condition. These interventions can lessen disruptive behaviors while education can offer greater independence to the patients in terms of self-help skills. Nonetheless, as no one symptom or behavior identifies patients, no single treatment or approach can be classified as effective for all of them. Up to now, the right approach has been to identify the individual's unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs as early as possible to give a suitable treatment.
Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, about 2 million people are affected, out of which 1 in every 68 children. Only two medications are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the country for the treatment of symptoms of autism. However, both are antipsychotic drugs with heavy side effects that are not always effective.
Israel pioneers in the experiment of cannabis in autism patients
It is at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem that the trial is going on. 120 children and young adults, aged between 5 and 29 and suffering from mild to severe autism, are participating in this program that will continue until the end of 2018.
The study is being led by Dr. Adi Aran, a pediatric neurologist. According to him, all of the selected patients had taken antipsychotics and almost half of the group had responded negatively to this type of medication. Dr. Adi Aran equally highlights that many parents were already illegally procuring, or asking doctors for cannabis oil for their autistic children after having heard that a mother illegally obtained same for her autistic son and stated that his state was much better now. However, as there is no concrete data to support the use of cannabis in the treatment of autism, doctors refused to prescribe it.
Cannabis proved to help epileptic patients
Things took a different turn when a year ago, studies in the country proved that cannabis indeed helped children suffering from epilepsy. Seizures were drastically reduced while the behavior of the patients taking cannabis improved.
Based on these findings, as well as on various anecdotal reports that autistic children benefited from cannabis, Dr. Adi Aran was urged to conduct scientific testing on his own. He admits having witnessed positive results in 70 of his autistic patients during an observational study. Convinced of the possible benefits of cannabis in autistic patients, he decided to go ahead with a clinical trial to gather concrete data.
The cannabis oil used has low levels of THC
For the purpose of this clinical trial, patients are given liquid cannabis drops that are being mixed with food, for instance. Two different cannabis oil formulas are being used, as well as a placebo. The oil is being provided by Breath of Life Pharma. The low levels of THC- the principal psychoactive component in cannabis- in the oil does not cause a high effect in the patients.
Dr. Adi Aran is, on the other hand, cautioning against premature conclusions regarding cannabis as a treatment for autism. He admits that many children are showing considerable improvements: some of them are no longer hurting themselves or throwing tantrums as before, while others are being more communicative. Certain children have also been able to rejoin their classes that they had to quit due to behavioral problems.
However, certain concerns are still persisting. "One of the most disquieting concerns is the long-term impact on brain development when cannabis is administered on young patients", warns the Autism Spectrum Center at Boston Children's Hospital. Breath of Life Pharma, on its side, sets aside these warnings, stating that the current antipsychotic drugs being prescribed to children are much more harmful than cannabis.
Israel is fully supporting these research works
The Israeli government has given the green light for the conduct of research regarding the medical benefits of cannabis on patients. It took Dr. Adi Aran only 6 months to obtain the permission from authorities to go ahead with his clinical trial.
Israel is famous for its avant-garde approach to this matter. In 1992, it allowed the use of medical marijuana, becoming one of the first countries to do so. It is also one of the three countries having a government-sponsored medical cannabis program, along with the Netherlands and Canada. Israel also has fewer legal restrictions compared to the United States (US), making it easier and less expensive to conduct researches. Indeed, more than 110 cannabis clinical trials are underway in the country, as confirmed by Michael Dor, Senior Medical Adviser at the Medical Cannabis Unit of the Health Ministry.
The United States is lagging behind
The US is having a hard time keeping pace with similar researches. Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Harvard-trained physician, confesses that he had much trouble obtaining the support of the US authorities when in 2013, he wanted to conduct clinical tests regarding the use of cannabis in epileptic patients. He was always facing refusals for years. Prior to his demand, he had treated a young girl with cannabis, entailing a considerable decrease in the seizures and this is why he wanted to carry out the clinical trial.
Dr. Alan Shackelford also shares that one of his colleagues faced the same closed doors for 7 years when he wanted to conduct clinical trials on the effects of cannabis on post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). In the same vein, he stresses that the US government has funded $1.4 billion in researches on cannabis since 2008 but $1.1 billion out of this sum went to research on preventive measures against addiction.