Lehigh University to study cannabis as treatment for autism

Parents cite increased focus, decreased anxiety after administration of cannabis therapy

In 2016, Pennsylvania became the sixth state to allow the use of cannabis as treatment for autism in children. Now, a year later, Lehigh University of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has announced it plans to begin assembling its first collection of real-world usage data to analyze the health effects and effectiveness of cannabis when used to mitigate autistic behavioural tendencies.

Lehigh hopes to work with BioGreen Farms, which is currently pursuing a production license for a facility in nearby Williams Township. Lehigh plans to begin seeking grants if BioGreen is awarded a grower's permit, but that’s a big “if”—there are 28 applicants vying for only 2 permits initially expected to be issued in the region.

BioGreen's medical director, Dr. Sue Sisley, told The Morning Call she is eager to conduct research on the effects of treating autism with lab-tested cannabis, having previously railed against the low quality of federally grown research marijuana.

No stranger to youth autism, Lehigh’s professors work with students at Centennial School, a special-focus school that serves children with educational and developmental disorders. Lehigh is also home to the Center for Promoting Research to Practice, which has been working with autistic children for years.

Although controversial, parents in America and around the world have reported success in reducing the behavioural tendencies associated with autism through the use of cannabis.

"Moms are certainly using this actively in the black market,” said BioGreen’s Dr. Sisley, “and now it's time to bring everything out and into the open."

One local Montgomery County mom, Erica Daniels, had exhausted the conventional treatments: prescription medication, diet changes, and even a hyperbaric chamber. With her son still succumbing to fits of anxiety, she turned to cannabis. She reported an immediate, substantial increase in focus, as well as her son being “meltdown-free” for as much as a month at a time.

The evidence supporting the idea that cannabis could prove an effective autism treatment isn’t all anecdotal. A study conducted by the University of Naples in 2013 concluded that cannabis—specifically the administration of cannabinoids to the CB2 receptor—could potentially be a “therapeutic target for the pharmacological management of autism care.” More recently, a 2016 study suggests that postnatal alterations in endocannabinoids contribute to behavioural impairments during adolescence and/or social disorders such as autism.

But critics and advocates alike say that more research is needed into both the efficacy and safety of this controversial treatment.

To bridge the gulf between theory and practice, last year Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Israel began the world’s first clinical trial to study the effects of cannabis on both children and adults with autism. In addition to examining the effectiveness of THC and CBD isolates, the Israeli study also includes controls to compare isolates to full-plant extracts, which still contain the same 20:1 ratio of THC and CBD, but also contain a range of other cannabinoids and terpenes, often said to create an “entourage effect” when taken in combination.

As for the new study planned for Lehigh University, the first permits for cannabis farms are expected to be issued by the end of June.

Featured image by Chmee2.

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