As the stigma surrounding marijuana and marijuana-derived products diminishes, serious academic and corporate interest in studying the plant grows, prompting a rise in funding of the once-taboo field. We saw yet another example of this in April, when the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research announced that it received a $4.7 million grant to study the effects of cannabidiol (CBD) on the symptoms of autistic children.
“It’s potentially extremely important…there really are very limited options for treating those negative behaviors for children with severe autism,” said Dr. Doris Trauner, a pediatric neurologist at UCSD’s School of Medicine and lead investigator for the study, in an interview with marijuana.com. “It’s got huge implications.”
Already, studies have found reasons to believe that CBD can alleviate the severe social anxiety experienced by those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—most prominently, a recent study in the Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences. But that report, authored by researchers at the University of Washington, documented the results of a pre-clinical experiment that tested the effects of CBD on autistic mice (pre-clinical just means that it didn’t involve human subjects). As useful as pre-clinical studies are, they have definite limitations. Namely, mice are not humans.
With the new funding from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, the UCSD study will be the first clinical trial testing the effects of CBD on children with autism. One in 68 children in the United States has ASD. While the disorder has no cure, research is less focused on curing rather then alleviating the symptoms experienced by those on the spectrum, which can include difficulty communicating, social anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and self-injury.
The study primarily hopes to determine if CBD is safe, tolerable, and whether it helps manage the symptoms of ASD. Beyond that, researchers will look at the physiological and neurochemical effects of CBD on the brain. Finally, the study will assess whether CBD has an impact on neuro-inflammation, which other studies have linked to ASD.
“The most important, immediate issue is whether CBD helps to improve the functioning of the child,” Dr. Tauner emphasized.
Dr. Tauner’s team will conduct the study with 30 children between 8 to 12 years old, all of whom have a diagnosis of moderate to severe autism. Apart from ASD, the children have no other neurological conditions or general health problems. In the first phase of the study, half the children will receive an oral dose of CBD while the other half receive a placebo. Then, half way through, the two groups will switch for the second phase. The study will be double-blind, meaning neither the children nor the investigators know who is receiving the CBD or the placebo.
“Neither the parents nor the people testing them will know which they’re on…this takes away the subjectivity,” she said. “It’s a really important way to do a study like this, because you want to try and minimize bias as much as possible.”