Observational studies and trials in both humans and rodents in recent years have reported the beneficial use of cannabinoids in the form of cannabidiol (CBD) cannabis and hemp extracts as a therapeutic potential for ASD. In addition to being beneficial, these studies have also reported that, even in adolescents, the side effects of the cannabis extracts were either nonexistent or less frequent than those who reported drugs that are traditionally used for ASD, ADHD, sleep disorders, or epilepsy.
When considering ASD, there are currently no defined drugs or psychotherapeutic approaches capable of extensively improving the quality of life, social skills, and cognitive functioning of the most severe cases. While the currently available drugs may mitigate certain symptoms, the effectiveness is, reportedly, limited and may have undesirable side effects. So, how is it then, that cannabinoid therapy may work differently with the body to possibly provide therapeutic benefit? To understand the difference of cannabinoid therapy in comparison to the available, conventional treatments it is helpful to first gain an understanding of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) these plant cannabinoids are interacting with.
The ECS is the largest neurotransmitter system in the body, involved in regulating nearly every physiological process. It is composed of two receptors called CB1 and CB2 receptors, endocannabinoids, and metabolizing enzymes. Two key endocannabinoids have been identified as Anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). These endocannabinoids are responsible for activating the CB1 and CB2 receptors that are found throughout our bodies and brains. Once endocannabinoids activate these receptors, physiological actions take place.
Research has shown that one thing individuals with ASD have in common, is that AEA levels are more reduced than in non-ASD individuals. This is a concept known as clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CED), a theory presented in 2001 and more thoroughly explored in 2004, where decreased AEA levels were found to be associated with a lower pain threshold, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), gastrointestinal disorders, and inflammation.
When experiencing a deficiency of endocannabinoids, such as decreased AEA levels, research suggests the benefit of naturally increasing levels with the modulating cannabis compound, CBD. By supplementing with phytocannabinoids, like CBD, we may be able to mimic the action of those endocannabinoids to fill in gaps of deficiency, which means those decreased levels may become normalized.
Since discovering this connection between decreased AEA levels and ASD, it has been shown that AEA modulation may potentially improve some aspects of behaviors, such as anxiety, without affecting social behaviors. There have even been suggestions that increasing AEA activity at CB1 receptor sites may actually lead to prosocial behavior. AEA modulation has also been linked as an important role in those with epileptic conditions.
In addition to modulating AEA levels, CBD has been researched for its modulating benefits in other physiological processes. This includes how effectively our body may facilitate the serotonin it creates, allowing for more regulation of our moods. It also includes the shifting of glutamate and inhibitory y-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which may regulate excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in the brain. Due to the many processes CBD may modulate, participants in studies have seen a reduction in anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort factors as well as an increase in the processing of emotional information.
Getting started with cannabinoid therapy can be overwhelming, especially when considering a neurodevelopmental disorder as complex as ASD. Most of the evidence of the efficacy of CBD with ASD comes from anecdotal and observational data; so although findings conclude that the cannabinoid is safe and may provide relief for associated symptoms, there is plenty of room for further clinical research to explore the full therapeutic potential of CBD, as well as the ability of other cannabinoids to potentiate its ability.
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