Researchers evaluate the current state of evidence of cannabis use for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders

For almost 20 years, researchers have been investigating autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), working to better understand the disorder and the best treatments. The core symptoms and co-morbidities associated with ASD affect daily living and quality of life, yet current medical interventions can only treat some symptoms and not the underlying cause. 

At the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, researchers have been interested in understanding if cannabis, also known as marijuana, can be used for the ASD population. “We had heard many anecdotal reports from parents, family members, and people with ASD that cannabis use had led to significant and at times, life-altering, positive change in symptoms. After hearing and reading these reports, we were inspired to investigate the studies that have been conducted and those that are currently in the process examining cannabis use among for ASD symptoms,” said Shanna Burke, PI on the study and Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work. 

While the use of cannabis for medical purposes is growing throughout the country to treat conditions or symptoms associated with cancer, epilepsy, and anxiety, its use is still criminalized in many states and it is still classified as an illegal substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. 

By analyzing recent peer-reviewed literature to identify the current state of evidence regarding cannabis use for the ASD population, the researchers found that “cannabis has the potential to be a recommended treatment for ASD, but clinical recommendations can and should only be supported with evidence of its efficacy from large clinical trials, such as those which are currently being undertaken. We need to remember that the ultimate goal of research is to improve health and prevent harm.” said Rumi Agarwal, first author of the study and a doctoral student in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

“Despite the many reports we hear from families of individuals with ASD about the positive changes they have observed, there is a critical need for more research to understand the risks and benefits of cannabis as a treatment option,” said Burke. “Families are looking for help and a treatment that will work, and determining safe therapeutic ratios and doses for a very heterogeneous disorder is a challenge that calls for further rigorous study in order to identify the best treatment protocols with minimal to no negative effects.   

To read the full study, click here

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