Cannabis for Autism: Biological Clue to Effectiveness

March 29, 2018

Many parents are reporting success using cannabis for their child with autism. A new study by researchers at Stanford University gives a clue to why cannabis might be effective for the person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The study, “Plasma anandamide concentrations are lower in children with autism spectrum disorder,” found reduced amounts of a neuromodulator, anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA), in the blood of 60 children with ASD compared to 56 neurotypical control children. The children were ages 3-12 years. The ASD group had a confirmed autism diagnosis. The typical controls had no history of neurodevelopmental or mental health problems.

Anandamide is part of the endocannabinoid (eCB) system of humans and all mammals. The endocannabinoid system has many functions in the body, among them regulating synaptic transmission in the brain. Alterations in synaptic transmission is a core feature of autism neurobiology. Many animal models of autism, including those of neurexin and neuroligin gene mutations, maternal LPS-exposed (MIA), maternal valproate acid-exposed, and fragile X knockout rodents, show downstream effects of reduced levels of endocannabinoids. Thus, the study authors note that “heterogeneity in ASD pathophysiology may have a point of convergence within the eCB system.”

The study found that anandamide concentrations “significantly differentiated cases and controls.” Although the study is preliminary–the method used to quantify AEA in blood is new–and the study sample size was small, the authors suggest that AEA levels in blood might serve as a biomarker to detect autism, as well as to identify a subset of ASD children with eCB differences. The authors conclude that “the eCB system may represent a promising target for therapeutic development in ASD.”

Which brings us to cannabis from the marijuana plant.

This plant contains phytocannabinoids (that is, plant-derived cannabinoids) which mimic our own human endocannabinoids or which interact with our own endocannabinoid system. Two of the most studied phytocannabinoids are THC and CBD (Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol). THC is the phytocannabinoid that has psychoactive properties. CBD, along with the other 100+ cannabinoids in marijuana, do not have pyschoactive effects. THC mimics the actions of anandamide at human synapses while CBD prevents the degradation of anandamide so that it is biologically active longer.

Accordingly, treating people with autism with cannabis might correct the lowered concentrations of anandamide, helping to restore synaptic function. Research in autism and cannabis is at an early stage, so more studies are needed. However, this new study adds to the evidence that the eCB system warrants attention.

Meanwhile, parents wishing to explore using cannabis for autism might start with Whole Plant Access for Autism, a group started by autism moms that helps guide parents through the process.


Plasma anandamide concentrations are lower in children with autism spectrum disorder. Karhson DS, Krasinska KM, Dallaire JA, Libove RA, Phillips JM, Chien AS, Garner JP, Hardan AY, Parker KJ. Mol Autism. 2018 Mar 12;9:18.

Ligands that target cannabinoid receptors in the brain: from THC to anandamide and beyond. Pertwee RG. Addict Biol. 2008 Jun;13(2):147-59.

A Personal Retrospective: Elevating Anandamide (AEA) by Targeting Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase (FAAH) and the Fatty Acid Binding Proteins (FABPs). Deutsch DG. Front Pharmacol. 2016 Oct 13;7:370.

The Endocannabinoid System and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Insights from Animal Models. Erica Zamberletti, Marina Gabaglio, and Daniela Parolaro. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Sep; 18(9): 1916.

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