Scientists investigating possible treatments for people living with autism at Tel Aviv University in Israel have published results of a trial involving treating autistic mice with cannabis oil. The mice selected had a human SHANK3-based model of autism and were administered long-term oral doses of medicinal cannabis oil. The team reported “that this treatment alleviates anxiety and decreases repetitive grooming behavior by over 70%”
The SHANK3 gene is found most abundantly in the brain and is in control of coding protein that is responsible for the proper functioning of the synapse, which is the junction between neurons that lets information pass between nerve cells. The SHANK3 mutation is a common ASD related mutation (between 1-2% of people that live with ASD).
Autism, or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are names given to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. It is estimated that one in a hundred children currently live with autism.
There have been recent studies looking at how effective CBD can be at treating symptoms of autism, including this study from an Israeli team of researchers in 2019 which published positive results. However, the scientists at Tel Aviv University wanted to explore further what role THC could play in the alleviation of ASD symptoms in the mutated mice, as they hypothesised that the focus was on the wrong cannabinoid.
Shani Poleg, a member of the research team who spoke to The Times of Israel said, “Studies that are underway mostly don’t focus enough on the details of what it is in the cannabis that may be helping people. In our study, we looked at the details, and came up with surprising and interesting findings. THC was more effective. The main difference was that THC treatment also improved social behaviour, not only repetitive compulsive behaviour.”
Referencing the concern many people have of the ‘high’ that the psychoactive cannabinoid THC causes, Shani Poleg went on to say, “Our study shows that when treating autism with medicinal cannabis oil there is no need for high contents of either CBD or THC. We observed significant improvement in behavioural tests following treatments with cannabis oil containing small amounts of THC and observed no long-term effects in cognitive or emotional tests conducted a month and a half after the treatment began.”
She went on to stress that even though the results appear positive, the trials are preliminary and more research is needed, the results should not be considered treatment advice. She also noted that although the SHANK3 mutation is considered a common mutation in medical terms, it actually only affects a small minority of people living with ASD. The researcher said, “we hope that this may have the effect of both encouraging further exploration of medical cannabis use for autism, and lead to a better type of cannabis being used.”