• Article
  • March 1, 2018

Military Funds Research of Cannabis-based Autism Treatment for Kids

The trial aims to study the effectiveness of cannabidivarin (CBDV) on irritability and repetitive behaviors in children with ASD.

Raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be an overwhelming experience for parents and have far-reaching effects on the entire family. According to CDC estimates, one in every 68 children has ASD and many exhibit aggressive, self-injurious and repetitive behaviors.

Montefiore Health System in Bronx, New York, with a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD), is conducting clinical trials of a cannabis-based compound that may help manage these behaviors. Researchers hope their findings help alleviate the stress on affected families—inside and outside the military.

"Children with autism have a lot of problem behaviors, which places a high level of stress on families, and they need to have access to a range of different services," says Eric Hollander, M.D., director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program and Anxiety and Depression Program at Montefiore and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "That can impact where families in the military can serve, thus impacting military readiness."

Wide range of potential benefits

The trial aims to study the effectiveness of cannabidivarin (CBDV) on irritability and repetitive behaviors in children with ASD. The hope is that CBDV can be an effective treatment for these behaviors without the significant side effects present in current treatments, according to Hollander.

The placebo-controlled study will examine the effects of CBDV administered to ASD patients ranging in age from 5 to 18 years over the course of 12 weeks. Participants' moods and behaviors will be measured before and after the treatment period to determine if CBDV improved social and cognitive functioning.

According to Hollander, further research will be needed to adequately understand all the risks and benefits of cannabis-based medicine, but CBDV could potentially provide a wide range of positive outcomes.

He says the compound has some immune-modulating effects that go beyond treatment of symptoms to targeting the underlying brain mechanisms causing the behaviors—a potential benefit for autism treatment, as well as other brain-related injuries or disorders.

Cannabis could provide relief to families

There are some obstacles to achieving breakthroughs in cannabis-based treatments, according to Hollander. "This area is tightly regulated, so among the challenges are the number of regulatory hurdles," he says. "But there needs to be effective new treatments with fewer side effects than the current available treatments—that's the ultimate end point."

Meanwhile, Montefiore's research around CBDV treatments could ultimately provide much-needed relief for ASD patients and their families. "There are a lot of issues that can trigger self-injurious, aggressive or explosive behaviors, so these families become limited in their ability to participate in different kinds of activities," Hollander says. "If you can improve those types of symptoms, it can have a huge impact in overall quality of life for the family."

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.