The brains of people with autism spectrum disorder have low anandamide, a cannabinoid made by the body. This means cannabis could be the breakthrough medicine autism has been waiting for.
Autism spectrum disorder has replaced ADHD as the overhyped, over-fretted diagnosis of American children. While there isn’t merit to the anti-vaxxer belief that vaccines cause autism, the undercurrent of fear and mystery that runs through society about the increasingly common disorder is very real. Researchers recently found a very important clue: anandamide is very low in autistic brain.
This means that cannabis may be the first viable treatment for long term symptom relief.
As the boogeyman of the moment, autism has received increased attention from medical researchers, psychologists, school counselors and, of course, the entertainment industry. While new shows, media, school guidelines and information sessions are popping up across the country, the biggest news about autism is coming out of the medical community. And that’s where cannabis researchers have made a bold new discovery.
Recent lab studies have shown that the key to understanding autism may lie within the body’s endocannabinoid system. It makes sense, in a way. The same operational structure that allows people to relax, and experience euphoria could also play a role in a disorder that is characterized by impairments in social communications and repetitive behaviors. It’s the same idea, just in reverse.
Specifically, scientists have shown that an endocannabinoid (the name for naturally occurring cannabinoids in our bodies) called anandamide plays a part in the development of autism spectrum disorder. People with autism have significantly lower concentrations of anandamide in their brains, suggesting that the endocannabinoid is involved somehow in the disorder—either by a directly causal link or by a third-party problem that could lead to both autism and an endocannabinoid deficiency.
The research tends to point to the first option. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that was discovered in 1992, shortly after the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and its receptors. The word anandamide comes from the Sanskrit for “joy” – a reference to close ties to cannabinoids. While it’s been well researched, there is still a lot of mystery around anandamide, in part because it’s pretty hard to study human brains. So most of our knowledge about anandamide comes from rat models.
That’s not to say there isn’t good research happening in humans. As many parents of autistic children can attest, there is solid evidence that an endocannabinoid deficiency can be mitigated by cannabis itself. An Israeli study on children with autism found that 80 percent of those treated with a high-CBD form of cannabis showed very encouraging results. Not only did the children behave better and show fewer problematic actions, they also reported an easier time assimilating to their environments and much improved communicative abilities. For a non-curable social disease, that’s a gold mine.
Autism affects about 1 percent of the population, making it a problem in nearly every school and every town in America. Many children with autism have difficulties expressing and dealing with emotions like frustration, anger, and fear — all of which can be greatly helped along by CBD oil’s calming effects. There is even some idea that the repetitive behaviors of children with autism — flapping of hands, rocking back and forth or arranging and rearranging objects, for example — could be calmed by cannabis in the same way it causes seizures to dissipate.
Another key marker of autism is sleeping disorder, for which cannabis may also provide much-needed relief. In short, there seems to be a lot of overlap between what cannabis can alleviate and the difficulties that autism manifests. Understanding autism as an endocannabinoid deficiency caused by a lack of anandamide makes a lot of sense.
Now that scientists can detect anandamide through plasma tests, instead of invasive brain procedures, there are opportunities for further study — and perhaps a treatment. The same study that found the link between endocannabinoid deficiency and autism also hints that non-invasive procedures may one day be able to carry extra anandamide to the brain through plasma. Although, that’s likely a long way off.
What’s not far in the future is the onslaught of research that these new discoveries should bolster. With sky-high numbers of diagnoses and a society brimming with fear of the unknown, the market value of an effective treatment or cure for autism is through the roof. That’s enough to get Big Pharma on board, even if it means dealing with the cannabis industry.