Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterised by difficulty with social interaction, repetitive behaviour and limited empathy with peers. Some forms of autism also lead to cognitive and linguistic impairment, although Asperger’s syndrome is an exception to this. So what role does the endocannabinoid system have to play?
There are various anecdotal examples of children whose autism symptoms are improved with use of CBD — for example, a 9-year-old, severely-autistic boy named Kalel Santiago was recently reported to have spoken his first words after treatment with CBD-rich hemp extract. Just as with epilepsy, it appears that the majority of parents administering cannabis to their autistic children are utilising CBD-rich oils, apparently with positive results. If activation of the cannabinoid receptors during the child’s development is an underlying cause of ASDs, it stands to reason that administration of antagonists such as CBD would negate this effect.
The EC system is fundamentally linked to autism spectrum disorders
In recent years, a significant body of research has accumulated exploring the link between the endocannabinoid system and ASDs. It has been demonstrated that CB1-receptors are most concentrated in areas in the brain thought to be dysfunctional in cases of autism, namely the cerebellum, hippocampus, and the basal ganglia (Bauman and Kemper 2005, Courchesne et al. 2007).
As the human foetus develops, CB1-receptors and their associated endocannabinoids play an integral role in neuron differentiation and axonal migration (Fride et al. 2009), processes that are essential for normal neurological development. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that CB1-receptors are responsible for defining the positioning of the synapses themselves (Harkany et al. 2008). It is therefore suggested that activation of CB1-receptors in infancy could trigger ASDs by interrupting normal brain development.