A new UK study shows that medical cannabis could improve quality of life in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
A paper, published this week using data from the UK, shows the treatment improved quality of life and reduced behavioural and psychological symptoms in autistic patients.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological development disorder which affects an estimated 700,000 people in the UK. Those with ASD commonly face challenges as a result of additional symptoms associated with the diagnosis, including severe anxiety and insomnia.
Since medical cannabis was rescheduled in 2018, cannabis-based medicinal products (CBMPs) have been prescribed by specialists for several conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The treatment has also been identified as a promising novel therapeutic for symptoms and co-morbidities related to ASD.
The study, which used data collected from the UK Medical Cannabis Registry (UKMCR) run by Sapphire Medical Clinics, showed that following initiation of treatment with medical cannabis anxiety was reduced, sleep and associated symptoms improved, as well as overall health-related quality of life.
This is the first observational study of its kind that has focused on the impact of CBMPs on autistic adults at a medical cannabis clinic.
Exploring the findings
The researchers analysed self-reported outcome data from 74 patients with ASD, with an average age of 33, drawn from the Generalised Anxiety Disorder scale, the Single-Item Sleep Quality Scale (SQS) and the EQ-5D-5L Quality of Life scale, at one, three, and six months, compared to baseline.
There were significant improvements in health-related quality of life, as well as anxiety and sleep at one and three months, with sustained changes in the EQ-5D-5L and SQS at six months (p<0.010). The EQ-5D-5L scale measures five factors: mobility, ability to self-care, ability to undertake usual activities, and the degree of pain/discomfort, and anxiety/depression
There are currently very limited treatment options for people with ASD, and medications that are used are often not well-evidenced and present a significant and ongoing burden of side-effects for some.
The study found that as a result of treatment with cannabis, there was a 33 per cent and 25 per cent reduction in the prescription of benzodiazepines and antipsychotics, respectively.
The study also monitored and evaluated the frequency of side effects (or adverse events) in patients treated with CBMPs.
CBMPs were “well tolerated” by the majority (81.1 per cent) of patients. Around 19 per cent of participants experienced an adverse event, which were commonly mild or moderate, rather than severe.
Dr James Rucker, consultant psychiatrist at Sapphire Medical Clinics and a senior author on the study, commented: “Adults with ASD face an array of challenging symptoms associated with the condition, which can have a devastating impact on their quality of life. The goal of treatment here is not to modify the core traits of autism. These can be valuable and invariably form a core part of a person’s identity.
“Rather, treatment with CBMPs helps to alleviate the burden of associated symptoms, including debilitating generalised and social anxiety, severe insomnia, repetitive and distressing patterns of thought, and the emotional distress that can often occur in response to rapid change.”
He added that the research team has now applied for funding for a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of CBMPs in ASD patients, which could be a “significant advance” in treatment options.
“The results of this study reflect my clinical experience prescribing CBMPs. However, there is a lack of clinical trial evidence available that informs us all objectively about the efficacy and safety of CBMPs. These findings present a significant step forward for research in this area, although they form only the first step in a longer and more rigorous process of evaluation,” Dr Rucker continued.
“Based in part on the results of this study, we have applied for grant funding for a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of CBMPs in those with ASD who also suffer with anxiety and insomnia. If funded, this trial may be a significant advance in the quest to develop new interventions for this group of people.”
Dr Simon Erridge, head of research and access at Sapphire Medical Clinics and lead author of study, added: “These findings, whilst promising, do highlight the fact that further evaluation is required to improve our understanding of the potential benefits of medical cannabis for adults with ASD. Essential to this is a commitment to RCTs to inform guidelines and day to day care for those with ASD. “