Treating psychiatric illness is tricky, partly because even defining psychiatric illness is tricky. While diseases of the body can be defined by their root causes, mental health professionals define disorders like depression or acute anxiety by their symptoms—often just surmising the underlying cause. When a patient comes in with the common cold, a doctor can easily identify the rhinovirus as the source of the runny nose, headache, and fever. But when that same patient sits down complains about feeling sad, a psychiatrist can only construct a profile based entirely on symptoms. A cold only has one cause—depression has many.
This makes treating psychiatric illness difficult.
Take, for instance, autism. As is often the case with psychiatric disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined by a collection of symptoms, not a single root cause. The developmental disorder has been linked to a host of genetic and environmental factors, including certain infections during pregnancy, alcohol or cocaine use during pregnancy, and complications during delivery. Even though we have the scientific sophistication to say that autism correlates with abnormal brain function, that still only describes the disorder without answering its cause. (The one thing scientists know for certain is that vaccines play no role whatsoever in the development of autism).
Autism has no cure (and whether or not we should focus on curing it at all is a subject of legitimate debate). Instead, modern medicine has contrived many ways that patients can manage and cope with a diagnosis of ASD. Recently, clinicians have found a reason for hope in a surprising place: good ol’ cannabis.
A new study in the Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) can help manage the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The report, authored by researchers at the University of Washington, documents the results of a pre-clinical experiment that tested the social effects of CBD on mice (pre-clinical just means that it didn’t involve human subjects).
The results were heartening. When given CBD, mice that previously exhibited anti-social behavior resembling autism became comfortable interacting with other mice. Researchers interpreted this to mean that the CBD helped to reduce the overwhelming social anxiety felt by the autistic mice.
Obviously, mouse models can only tell us so much, but there is an on-going clinical trial measuring CBD’s effectiveness with ASD happening at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the trial isn’t slated for completion until July 2019. In the meantime, parents with ASD children have been conducting little experiments of their own, with growing anecdotal evidence confirming the findings of the University of Washington study.