The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Study on Medical Marijuana and Autism
Posted by Glenn Beierle on 01/10/2018 in Research and Studies
Updated on January 30, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
We have a decent amount of research on medical marijuana’s ability to treat conditions like pain and seizures, but what about autism? Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) want to find out how medical marijuana can treat autism symptoms.
CHOP plans to work with Australian research firm Zelda Therapeutics to conduct a study on autism and medical marijuana. By using CHOP’s research infrastructure, they’ll observe existing patients who have autism to understand the drug’s effects.
About CHOP and Zelda Therapeutics
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia established its first research building in 1922. This facility started a legacy of research on children’s health issues when they created the first pediatric research department in the country in 1972. Many of the staff at CHOP are also faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania, an established Ivy League university. CHOP’s breakthroughs include methods for changing sickle-shaped blood cells, the development of a balloon catheter for cardiology and the creation of vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella.
CHOP collaborates with the University of Pennsylvania to run The Center for Autism Research (CAR), which develops effective treatments, educates patients and trains future autism researchers. They employ a multidisciplinary team to cover every aspect of the disorder.
Australia’s research firm Zelda Therapeutics focuses specifically on medicinal cannabis. As a leader in medical marijuana studies, they have conducted research with establishments all over the world. They worked on a study in Chile that also concentrated on marijuana medicine for autism, so their work with CHOP isn’t their first experience with the subject.
How Did CHOP Get Here?
CHOP’s study announcement comes on the tail of Pennsylvania’s legalization of medical marijuana. The state officially legalized cannabis medicine in early 2016 and opened the official program in November 2017. Pennsylvania plans to distribute program cards in early 2018.
Pennsylvania is the first state to count autism as a qualifying condition. They based this decision on anecdotal evidence of cannabis’ ability to help with mood regulation and sleep issues. Further research could reinforce medicinal cannabis’ ability to relieve autism symptoms.
Scientists have studied the effects of medicinal cannabis on autism for about two decades. The first study came from UC Irvine and indicated cannabis medicine could relieve autism and other conditions. In 2013, a Stanford University study suggested autism could have a link to a gene mutation that interferes with cannabinoids. Another 2013 study discovered that immune dysfunction, which can cause some types of autism, can happen because of the endocannabinoid system.
Researchers at CHOP have conducted extensive research on other autism-related topics. For example, they discovered that mitochondrial DNA could influence someone’s likelihood of having autism in mid-2017. They regularly conduct clinical trials related to autism and often look for qualified subjects to study.
Study Goals and Methodology
CHOP has plenty of anecdotal evidence showing medical marijuana’s ability to relieve autism symptoms. But, they don’t have much empirical evidence to work with. So, they want to collect data that shows how different cannabinoids affect patients with autism. While some patients take medicine containing only CBD, others take medication with a combination of CBD and THC. The team at CHOP wants to understand why certain kinds of cannabis medicine for better for some autistic patients than others.
Athena Zuppa, director of CHOP’s Center for Clinical Pharmacology, will lead the study’s research team. The Center for Clinical Pharmacology focuses on the development of drugs rather than autism. So, Zuppa’s team will likely emphasize the study’s impact on the development of cannabis medications. No matter how they approach the study, the team will find essential data about cannabis medicine and autism.
Since this study will be an observational one, Zuppa’s team won’t provide any marijuana medicine to patients. Instead, they’ll observe patients who already use medical marijuana to relieve their symptoms. Instead of imitating treatment, they can look at existing treatments to see what already works for patients. Zuppa stated this angle could help the team also understand how parents make medication decisions for their children.
The team plans to begin the study in early 2018 and get preliminary results from the research within about six months. So, we could have critical evidence on autism and medical marijuana by the end of the year!
More About Medical Marijuana and Autism
Whether medical marijuana can impact the causes of autism, it could still help autistic patients needing relief. Cannabis medicine can help folks with autism take control of their treatment by relieving symptoms like:
- Irritability and aggression
Some people with autism might want to have as neurotypical a brain as possible, and tackling autism’s cause could help them achieve that goal. But, some folks might only want to relieve symptoms like depression and seizures rather than search for a cure. Regardless of someone’s treatment plan, more evidence on autism and medical marijuana can give them control of their regimen.
We should also note that there doesn’t seem to be a large amount of evidence related to adults with autism and cannabis medicine. Hopefully, in the future, research will expand to cover adults trying to manage their treatment, as well. Knowledge is power, and knowing more about medical marijuana can help us use it better.
Who to Talk to About Medical Marijuana
If you’re interested in medical marijuana treatment for yourself or your child, consult with a medical professional. Doctors with medical marijuana certifications can advise you on treatment strategies, and patients who already have a medical marijuana card can talk with dispensary budtenders about their questions.