Medical Marijuana and Autism


With April being Autism Awareness Month, we want to draw attention to some of the challenges sufferers of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face and highlight some of the components of cannabis that may provide relief.  

ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning symptoms will express to varying degrees in each person.  It usually creates neurodevelopmental issues which interfere with the reward system for social interaction and learning.  It would be like trying to communicate without being able to rely on social cues or body language, a smile might not register as positive reception, and tone of voice would hold no weight.  ASD is also associated with difficulty learning language and taking decisive action. For some people on the ASD spectrum their symptoms are so severe it is unlikely they will get to experience an independent life.

A study published in January this year is showing promising results using cannabis medicine as a treatment for children with autism.  When using CBD via an oral dose, 74.5% of child patients suffering from ASD saw an improvement in comorbidity symptoms, 21.6% saw no change, and 3.9% experienced worsened symptoms. (“Oral Cannabidiol use in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to treat Related Symptoms and Co-morbidities” 2019)

Cannabis, more specifically THC, CBD, a-Pinene, b-Caryophyllene, and Myrcene work together to help provide relief for many of the symptoms of ASD.  a-Pinene, present in many strains, but usually higher concentration in sativa, is known to reduce inflammation in the brain. It also helps with memory retention and mental alertness.  Thus, a-Pinene combats co-morbid symptoms at the neurochemical and physical level. Myrcene, the most common terpene usually found in high content in Indica strains, is known for anti-inflammatory, sedating and relaxing effects.  The anti-inflammatory effect improves nerve cell communication and can provide better neurological functioning. The muscle relaxing and sedative qualities help with two major co-morbid symptoms of ASD, convulsions and the inability to fall asleep.  b-Caryophyllene, found in many varieties of cannabis, is an anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and neuroprotectant. Reducing anxiety makes it easier for people with ASD to develop communication skills, a major obstacle to independence. The neuroprotective properties help maintain cell health and communication in the brain by reducing oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress has been discovered to be a factor in the progression of autism symptoms, especially the ability to learn language. Oxidative stress leads to inflammation of the brain, which is the mechanism of worsening symptoms. (Evidence linking oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and inflammation in the brain of individuals with autism, 2014)  THC, which binds to the CB1 endocannabinoid receptor in our body, stimulates the release of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is critical to social reward and social learning.  In this way THC may help with the behavioral aspects of ASD. CBD has countless positive influences in the body, what makes it effective for some patients with autism is the combination of its anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and anticonvulsant effects.  CBD binds to the CB2 receptor, and modulates the release of inflammatory triggers, restricting the source of inflammation. The neuroprotective effects maintain the cell health of the neurons, further aiding neurological processing. The anticonvulsant effects can help with excitable behavior and fluctuations in serotonin which could interfere with social learning.

As you can see, the components of cannabis we looked at overlap in relief.  Multiple anti-inflammatory agents, and neuroprotectants work to regulate and protect brain cells.  By working together the relief provided is usually greater than the sum of the parts, some call this the entourage or ensemble effect.

Although there is evidence that cannabis may be a future treatment for autism at this point there are not enough large sample human studies to be definitive.  Hopefully as we discover more benefits of cannabis and how to effectively use it for autism we can provide fresh hope for the families in our community living with ASD.  There are few things more rewarding than witnessing a parent and child able to communicate at depth for the first time. Everyone deserves to experience that connection, and TerraVida is here to contribute to that goal.


Barchel, Dana et al. “Oral Cannabidiol Use in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder to Treat Related Symptoms and Co-morbidities.” Frontiers in pharmacology vol. 9 1521. 9 Jan. 2019, doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.01521

Maroon, Joseph, and Jeff Bost. “Review of the neurological benefits of phytocannabinoids.” Surgical neurology international vol. 9 91. 26 Apr. 2018, doi:10.4103/sni.sni_45_18

Rossignol, D. A., & Frye, R. E. (2014). Evidence linking oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and inflammation in the brain of individuals with autism. Frontiers in physiology, 5, 150. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00150

Wei, Don et al. “Endocannabinoid signaling mediates oxytocin-driven social reward.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 112,45 (2015): 14084-9. doi:10.1073/pnas.1509795112

Further Reading