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A marijuana compound to treat autism? Scientists in California are looking for answers

In this Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, photo, a syringe loaded with a dose of CBD oil is shown in a research laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.
In this Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, photo, a syringe loaded with a dose of CBD oil is shown in a research laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

It's already used to treat epilepsy in some children — and now researchers are examining whether a marijuana compound could also be helpful for those with autism.

The University of California San Diego announced in a news release that it will be conducting a test on children with "severe" autism to see if cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD, can help treat some of their symptoms.

The research, which will involve 30 children, was made possible thanks to a $4.7 million donation from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation in Lindon, Utah, according to The San Diego Tribune. The goal is to see if CBD can lessen seizures, anxiety and self-harming.

Igor Grant, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego's Center for Medical Cannabis Research, said it's important to give parents a definitive answer as to whether CBD could improve the quality of their kids' lives.

“The more severe manifestations of autism are difficult to treat, causing parents to look for non-traditional remedies,” he said. “There are unconfirmed reports that cannabidiol could be helpful, but there are no careful studies to document either its benefits or its safety.

"This gift will enable our researchers to develop and implement a translational program of research that pairs a clinical trial with detailed neurobehavioral observation, " he added, "as well as basic science studies to determine if cannabidiol holds therapeutic promise, and if so, via what mechanisms.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have some form of autism. Brain abnormalities are associated with autism, according to the Times of San Diego, and CBD has shown promise in fixing certain neurotransmitter imbalances. But it remains unknown if CBD, the non-psychoactive component in weed, can help alleviate some of those imbalances.

For the study, 30 children will receive a liquid form of CBD that comes from a lab in Arizona, as reported by The San Diego Tribune. Aged 8 to 12, they will undergo MRI scans and behavioral testing to see what changes, if any, the treatment brings.

Grant told the newspaper that they also want to see if brain inflammation and brain network connectivity are affected.

A growing number of people have said that marijuana shows promise in combating some of the more harmful symptoms of autism.

Mark Zartler shared a video on Facebook in 2017 that showed his 17-year-old daughter Kara, who has autism, hitting herself repeatedly. But then he gives her some vaporized cannabis, the video shows, and the self-harming behavior goes away in just minutes.

“There’s more medicinal uses than people realize,” he told the San Antonio Express. “Ask yourself what would you do in my situation.”

And Katelyn Ramsey Castleberry, spokesperson of Louisiana Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, told that she has two autistic sons who she believes could benefit from using a form of medical pot.

One child has severe autism and has climbed on the roof, she said, while her other son has high-functioning autism but is nervous around children.

“I think medical marijuana would make his quality of life better," she told "I’m not of the mind his autism will be stopped in its track, but he won’t suffer from a nervous system that is constantly on fire."

On Thursday, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration recommended that CBD should be prescribed — but for those with severe types of epilepsy., according to NBC News.

It should only be used for children over the age of two, they voted, and must be used for those with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. According to NBC, the FDA in the past has suggested it will make the CBD available for select prescriptions.

"The results from (three different studies) provide substantial evidence of the effectiveness of CBD for the treatment of seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome," the FDA said in briefing documents.

David A. Brenner, vice chancellor of UC San Diego Health Sciences, said in a press release that he hopes the university's next study can discover new ways that CBD can alleviate the suffering of others.

“We believe that by working together using evidence-based data," he said, "we can make the greatest impact on the field, our community and policy decision-makers.”